Bill Menke's BLOG Page: Naples, Italy: City Most Endangered by Volcanoes

Mt. Vesuvius at dusk

Eight years ago, I was asked to write a magazine article that identified the Most Dangerous Volcano in the World*. I hedged a bit, and rated three as among the most dangerous. I put Mt. Vesuvius on my list both because of its proximity to a major population center (Naples, Italy) and because of its proven capacity for very large, explosive eruptions (e.g., the one that destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii in 79 CE). When I wrote that article, I had never actually been to Vesuvius.

Now I have. After spending a few days driving around Naples (gulp!) and climbing the mountain, (a pleasant morning hike), I must report that I am still of the opinion that it is one of the the most dangerous - and maybe the most dangerous - in the world.

Furthermore, I'd have to put the Phlegrean Fields, which is a second volcanic region near Naples, pretty high on my list of dangerous volcanoes, too. The Italians, or at least the non-volcanologists among them, like to speak of the Fields as an extinct volcano. With two eruptions in historic times, and hot spring activity today, it is certainly not extinct. It could blow any time!

With the Fields just to the north, and Vesuvius just to the south, Naples is in my opinion the most vocanically risky city in the world. Furthermore, the narrow and twisty city streets, punctuated by only a couple of four-lane highways (the Italian equivalent to New York's Bronx River Parkway, and not the Long Island Expressway), make evacuating the population extremely difficult!

When on Vesuvius, I noticed that a volcano observatory is situated on its lower flank. It's a great place to be when observing the mountain's minor puffs and snorts. And of course, the public expects to see us scientists on TV, with the volcano as the backdrop, interpreting that activity. And we love it. But when the big eruption comes (and it will), that observatory is going to be blown away. I think that I will restrict myself to viewing Vesuvius from a spot high on a hill across the Bay (from whence I took the photo, at left).

* Menke, William, The Most Dangerous Volcano In the World, Earth Matters, Fall 1998.