How is Vesuvius monitored for activity and what emergency plans are in place?

In the second of our of blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, we look at how Vesuvius is monitored for signs of activity and what would happen if it were to erupt.

Vesuvius is the most monitored volcano in the world, which is hardly surprising when you consider that there are around 3 million people living within 20 miles (32km) of the crater. Due to the close proximity of such a large population, it is widely considered to be the most dangerous volcano on the planet.

There is currently no smoke or lava being produced, though when I visited the crater rim I could clearly see small fumaroles emitting steam produced by the heat inside the rocks causing rainwater and the remains of the winter snow to evaporate. The threat of a significant event is ever-present however, and the authorities conduct thorough monitoring of the activity around Vesuvius as well as drawing up an emergency response plan should a major eruption occur.

Mount Vesuvius from above

The monitoring of Vesuvius is widespread and takes many forms. Sensors and instruments on the volcano itself detect seismic activity and gas emissions whilst satellite imagery is also used. The volcano is constantly monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year from the observatory on the volcano itself, whilst there are also remote locations which can provide full assistance in the event of a major incident requiring evacuation of the on-site observatory. It used to be possible to visit the observatory, but it has been closed since early 2014 for renovation – there is currently no news on its re-opening.

The emergency response plan has several stages. The first stage, having identified an immediate threat, is to evacuate all residents of the ‘red zone’. This is an area of approximately 200km2 around the crater which would bear the brunt of any eruption – around 18 small towns and villages lie in the red zone, with a combined population of around 600,000 people. A complete evacuation is expected to take around 72 hours.

The second phase involves the evacuations of residents from the ‘yellow zone’ if there was a danger to them from the gas and ash emitted by the eruption. The yellow zone is much larger and comprises the regions of Naples, Salerno, Avellino and Benevento and an additional population of around 2.5 million people. There is also a plan for an area designated the ’blue zone’, a small region which falls within the yellow zone but is at an increased risk of flooding.

An evacuation would be ordered following early signs of a major eruption. Each of the 18 regions in the red zone has been twinned with a region of Italy to which their residents would relocate – for example, residents of Pompeii would be moved to and accommodated in the region of Liguria in Italy’s north.

However, many experts have condemned the plan as undeliverable and inadequate. For starters, they say that the plan is based on a repeat of the 1631 sub-Plinian eruption of Vesuvius which followed a series of smaller events in the days and weeks prior to the main event. This would allow the authorities time to monitor the increasing activity and prepare for an evacuation before sounding the alarm. Yet the 79AD eruption which devastated Pompeii was a sudden Plinian eruption and a repeat of this type of explosive eruption would render the plan useless.

Victims of the 79AD Vesuvius eruption, Pompeii

Evidence from the 79AD suggests that the eruption occurred without warning. The lava flow swept down the volcano’s slopes at over 100 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path and leaving people unable to flee. Unfortunately, the lava flows aren’t the biggest threat as experts have likened a large-scale Plinian eruption to that of a bomb bigger than the most powerful nuclear weapon being detonated. The effects of this will be a wave of intense heat burning everything in its path, smoke and hot ash being ejected miles into the atmosphere and rocks being flung up to 12 miles away and the creation of a small tsunami in the Bay of Naples.

Even if the authorities are given fair warning, local residents are unlikely to be well-prepared. The authorities don’t promote or widely distribute information on safety or the evacuation plan and generally, people haven’t prepared by doing simple things such as packing an emergency bag or planning alternative evacuation routes to safety.

Volcano (or earthquake) safety isn’t even taught in schools – compare this to somewhere like Japan, where even the smallest of children know to seek shelter under a doorway or table in the event of an earthquake. One person I spoke to said that in the 20 years she’d lived in the area there had been just one practice evacuation held at a local school and that the local emergency services had all been present and ready at the beginning of the simulation – highly unlikely in the actual event!

The same person had been on a local train some years previously, which had stopped due to an electrical fault. After a lengthy delay the doors were opened and instructions given for people to make their way off the train in a calm and orderly manner. Instead she described to me a scene of utter chaos as passengers frantically shoved and pushed each other out of the way as they all scrambled to try and be first out, leaving the less mobile or strong people behind to fend for themselves. Her concern is that in the event of an eruption the residents, unprepared or trained for what to do, would simply panic.

As discussed in our first blog, many people have built illegally in the red zone. Unfortunately, rather than act to remove them by law, the government imposed a series of ‘fines’ for those who had built without the necessary permits but allowed them to remain. This created a situation whereby there are large populations living in the most dangerous areas of the volcano, in houses which are often not built to the usual standards and therefore are at greater risk of collapse in the event of even low-level seismic or volcanic activity.

To further compound the issue, the roads within the red zone are largely rural – steep, narrow, twisty roads linking small villages and farms – and unfit for the purpose of allowing 600,000 people to flee quickly. Emergency services trying to provide support would be stranded on the same congested roads as the fleeing population.

Development on Mount Vesuvius 1944-2006, photo courtesy of

In the face of pressure from volcanologists, in 1995 the Italian government created the National Park of Vesuvius to increase restrictions in developments within the park boundary, whilst in the early 21st century the government introduced an offer of funding of around €30,000 to actively encourage people to move away. However, despite their best attempts they have had relatively little impact – €30,000 is not a lot of money with which to buy a new home and, despite the National Park restrictions, new buildings continue to be erected in the red zone.

This short-sighted planning is not unique to Vesuvius. I spoke to a teacher who lives in the town of Sarno, on the south-eastern side of Vesuvius. The Bourbons, who ruled the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th century, recognised the threat of potential flooding caused by sudden downpours of rain onto the mountains behind the town. They built a series of underground canals and reservoirs to provide protection and conducted surveys which recommended avoiding building in certain areas. Over time these surveys were forgotten about and the town spread over a larger area, resulting in many of the old canals and reservoirs being filled in, blocked or built over.

Sadly, in 1998 Sarno was hit by several large mudslides which partially destroyed the town and killed 137 people. Interestingly, none of the original Bourbon buildings in the old town had been affected whilst there was widespread damage in the areas which they had warned against developing. However, as part of the major re-construction which has taken place in the intervening years, many people have again ignored the advice of the Bourbons, and the lessons of 1998, and re-built their homes in the same high-risk areas.

It seems, much like the locals’ attitude towards life in general, the authorities are focussing more on quick-fix solutions than the long-term implications. However, would having a much more sustainable approach to building in the red zone and devising a more robust emergency response plan, accompanied by the necessary training and provision of public information, actually offer any more support and safety to the local population? The evidence suggests perhaps not.

We know that Vesuvius is overdue a large eruption. This may happen tomorrow or it may not happen for another 100 years or more, but the consensus of opinion suggests that that there will be a ‘big one’ soon. But what will the likely effects of a big eruption be?

Mount Vesuvius looms large over Naples and the bay

To provide some context to how ‘big’ a big eruption might be, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption which seriously affected European air traffic in 2010 was rated as a scale 4 eruption on the logarithmic Volcanic Explosion Index (VEI). The 79AD eruption of Vesuvius was a scale 5 eruption, making it 10 times as powerful.

We know that the smoke and ash from a big eruption will be ejected high into the atmosphere, where it is extremely likely to cause significant interference to weather patterns across Europe and widespread disruption to global air transportation.

(There is historic evidence of scale 6+ volcanic eruptions causing global changes: the sheer volume of ash and smoke causes skies to darken, resulting in lower global temperatures as a result of less sunlight reaching the earth. This has been known to affect harvest and even prompt mass migration of people.)

Whether or not there are early warning signs enabling the evacuation plan to be put into place, a major eruption of Vesuvius will lead to a large loss of life and the creation of a great number of refugees, with estimates ranging from tens of thousands to millions, depending on the severity of the event.

A final – and not insignificant question – regards the authorities’ decision-making process in ordering an evacuation. As previously discussed, a speedy evacuation as a response to an immediate threat would be impossible. But, even given warning of an imminent threat from the volcano, they still face a very difficult decision. Evacuating the area too soon based on a risk that doesn’t materialise would devastate the local economy and communities, whilst delaying too long would put the lives of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people at risk.


In the next of our blogs about the Bay of Naples region, we focus on tourism – how has it changed over the years, what are the impacts on the locals and what does the future hold?

Posted on March 24, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

What do people who live near Vesuvius think of the volcano?

In the first of a series of blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, Discover the World Education’s Product Manager Nick tackles your most pressing concern – what do people think about living next to a large volcano, and why do they do it?

Prior to my recent trip to the Bay of Naples, we invited geography teachers and students to send in questions that you’d like answering about life in the region. Over 80% of the questions we received centred on the threat of eruption from Vesuvius and what the local communities thought of living in such a dangerous environment.

In the UK we occasionally experience minor earthquakes and many people remember the inconvenience of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption of 2010 stopping flights and leaving a thin layer of ash on cars. In contrast, approximately 10% of the world’s population live close enough to a volcano to be directly affected by an eruption. However, we are under no serious threat from volcanic activity so it’s perhaps unsurprising that we are so curious about why people choose to live near to volcanoes.

Approximately 3 million people live within 20 miles of Vesuvius’ crater. The volcano is currently dormant and has been since 1944 when a five day long eruption partially destroyed a couple of small villages on the western slopes of the volcano and emitted smoke and gas high into the atmosphere.

Bay of Naples panorama from Vesuvius

Most people I spoke to fell into two camps. Some didn’t think about the danger, preferring ignorance instead. Others were aware of the danger but accepted that there was little that they could do to prevent or control its activity and therefore chose to concentrate their energy on other aspects of their lives such as family or work, rather than worrying about the volcano. A few people were in denial, insisting that they didn’t live close enough to be in danger, or that the volcano wouldn’t erupt anyway...

Whilst every person I spoke to didn’t worry about the threat of an eruption, many of them were surprised that I had asked them about it – to them, living near Vesuvius was completely normal, in much the same way that driving on the other side of the road or speaking another language is completely normal and familiar to them but very unusual to us Brits.

I found this idea fascinating, but somewhat familiar. One of the things people often talk to me about when I’m abroad and they learn where I’m from is the rain and how wet Britain is. Once I appreciated that living near a volcano was as normal for Neapolitans (people from Naples) as living in a rainy country is for us, I was able to understand their relaxed attitudes a little more easily.

However, I couldn’t comprehend quite how cavalier some people were towards the threat from the volcano. We live in a rainy country and there’s nothing we can do to change that but we have learned to minimise its impact – people check the weather forecast before going out and we dress appropriately in case it does rain whilst we are out. Anyone who has been caught out in the rain without a coat or umbrella usually doesn’t forget one again in a hurry!

I would have thought that a similar approach would be followed around Vesuvius – the people can’t control the volcano, but would stick to living in towns and cities away from the volcano and in houses built to withstand the minor tremors and earthquakes associated with a large eruption. However, this is far from the truth.

Around 600,000 people (20% of the local population) live in the ‘red zone’, an area around the volcano with a radius of approximately 5 miles which would take the most impact in the event of a major eruption. Much of the accommodation in this area has been built without planning permission and doesn’t have the structural integrity to provide much, if any, protection to residents. In the event of a sudden big eruption, the majority of people living in the red zone would stand little chance of survival.

View of Mt Vesuvius and Naples

So what compels people to live in this way? Again, the common answers were that it’s normal. Many people were born in the towns and villages in the red zone and don’t want to leave, others may have been left land or property by elder relatives and found it cheaper to live in the area then sell up and leave.

Another key reason is that the volcano is a major source of income to the area. Pompeii is a big honeypot site though there are others and a high volume of visitors requires hotels and restaurants – locals are more than happy to build additional facilities to secure an income from tourists, even if it means building deep in the red zone. Whilst building closer to the crater might mean more potential danger, it also means the property is elevated further above the plains and offers better views across the entire Bay, from Naples to Sorrento.

The land around Vesuvius is also incredibly fertile and is home to acres of greenhouses and farms. Local tomatoes are amongst the finest in Italy whilst the area is also famed for its citrus fruits and wine, particularly the Lacryma Christi (Tears of Christ) which is produced from grapes grown only on the slopes of Vesuvius and is perhaps the closest equivalent to the wine drunk by Ancient Romans.

By now it’s evident that locals really don’t worry about the dangers of living next to a volcano. But during my trip I spent a couple of days with Paolo, a local guide born and bred just outside Naples, and on our travels I learned that the volcano is not just vitally important to the area’s geography and economy, but is instrumental to its culture.

The Romans captured the city of Naples from the Greeks and, attracted by the fertile volcanic land and many thermal pools, quickly developed the region, building towns, cities, roads and aqueducts. The main port of Rome was situated a few miles west of Naples, as was the empire’s largest naval base, whilst the emperors Tiberius and Claudius both spent time living in the area.

The legacy of the Roman era around Naples is vast. Pompeii is the best known relic but nearby Pozzuoli features the third largest Roman amphitheatre in Italy and - thanks to a series of bradyseismic events in the early 1980s which raised previously sunken land from below sea level - an ancient Roman marketplace.

The Romans were also responsible for the execution of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Having unsuccessfully failed to kill him by fire and by lions in the arena, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered him to be beheaded. Locals wrapped his body and head in cloths and soaked up his spilt blood, placing it into two glass ampules. Years later the ampules of blood were carried to the catacombs of Naples and, legend has it, liquefied en route when brought close to the remains of his body.

The vials of San Gennaro’s dried blood are kept in the Cathedral and an annual procession takes place where they are carried across the city – thousands flock to witness his blood liquefy once more, as local superstition says that this event will ensure San Gennaro will protect the city for another year. The last time the miracle did not occur was 1980, the same year an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale killed almost 3,000 people in towns in the Naples area. The previous occasion? 1944.

1944 lava flow on Vesuvius, with Naples in the background

Whist we have a much better understanding of volcanoes in modern times, many local superstitions and traditions date back centuries when people lived in fear of the wrath of the gods – Neapolitans remain religious and superstitious people.

Naples is also a city of great community. Unusually, the very rich and very poor live close to one another rather than in separate neighbourhoods whilst the narrow, busy streets mean privacy can be a luxury, but this has fostered a close-knit community amongst the residents. A practice which has become common in many cities in recent times started in Naples as the caffe sospeso (literally ‘suspended coffee’) whereby a person would buy two coffees – one for themselves, and one to be kept behind the bar for someone who could not afford one to enjoy later. This gesture is typical of Naples and the people’s innate feeling of responsibility towards their fellow man. Neapolitans are also famously vicarious people, living fun-filled and enjoyable lives and epitomising the Roman saying ‘carpe diem’ or ‘seize the day’.

Paolo explained that each of these traits – the superstitions and religious practices offering protection from danger, the sense of looking after one’s neighbours and the idea of living each day as if it could be your last – were born from the proximity of Vesuvius to the city and the inhabitants and that he feels it’s almost impossible to talk about Neapolitan culture without considering the influence of the volcano.

Naples from Mt Vesuvius, with Campi Flegrei in the distance

However, perhaps of most interest to me when speaking about the dangers of living in the area was that every person I encountered referred to Vesuvius as the threat, rather than the Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields), a vast volcanic complex including Solfatara situated to the west of the city, but closer to Naples than Vesuvius. This entire region is a supervolcano, much like Yellowstone in USA or Taupo in New Zealand, and an eruption here would dwarf that of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The Vesuvian eruption buried nearby Pompeii under approximately 5m of ash, and Herculaneum under around 20m. In contrast, the last major eruption from Campi Flegrei, approximately 12,000 years ago, changed the landscape of the Sorrento peninsula located 20 miles (32km) across the bay.

Originally both the north and south coasts of the Sorrento peninsula were formed of craggy limestone cliffs, as can still be seen today on the Amalfi Coast, the peninsula's south side. However, the Campi Flegrei eruption ejected such a high volume of volcanic ash and pumice that, as it drifted on the prevailing winds, it settled in the folds of the north coast’s cliffs.

Over time the volcanic material hardened and cooled, forming a great plateau of tufa, the flat volcanic bedrock on which Sorrento town now sits. As it cooled, it contracted and cracked, creating vast crevices in the rock, such as the one which runs from south to north underneath Piazza Tasso and down to Sorrento harbour. These have since been widened by water flowing from the mountains behind the town.

Sorrento peninsula, showing Sorrento's tufa plateau to the left and the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast to the right

Whilst a Vesuvian eruption akin to that of 79AD which destroyed Pompeii would be devastating to the local area, a major eruption from Campi Flegrei would likely remove Naples from the map and have far-reaching consequences across Europe and, possibly, globally.

Perhaps the Neapolitan attitude is right, after all - sometimes ignorance is bliss.


In the second of our blogs on life in the Bay of Naples, we look at the Volcano Monitoring and Evacuation Plan.

Posted on March 18, 2015 in Bay of Naples , Classics , Earthquakes , Geography , Geology , Sorrento , Study Trips , Travel Stories , Volcanoes | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Find Out About Life in the Bay of Naples

Have you ever wanted to know if people who live near volcanoes worry about an eruption? Perhaps you're curious as to how tourism to one of Italy's most popular destinations has changed in recent years? Or you might be interested to learn what life would be like abroad for an English expat?

Discover the World Education's Product Manager Nick is visiting the Bay of Naples next week to explore new excursions and to further develop our Italy school trip programme. He will be meeting a host of residents to find out more about what daily life is like in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.

He'll be meeting a variety of people including a local tourist guide, a Sorrento hotelier, an excursion company running tours around the Campi Flegrei and an English lady living and working as a teacher in the region.

If you or your students have any questions you'd like to know the answers to, tweet or Facebook message your suggestions to us throughout the week - we'll publish answers to the best on his return.


Posted on March 6, 2015 | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

Valentine’s Traditions Throughout the World

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is hard to avoid here in the UK. We know love is universal and should be celebrated but how do different countries recognise it (if at all) around the world? In Iceland for example, Valentine’s Day is barely acknowledged and it is not hard to see why, with all the other Icelandic traditional days and seasonal customs, it would hardly fit in the calendar! We look at some of the other Discover the World destinations to find out what local variations of the day exist. 

StvalentinemosaicWhere it all began! Way back in the third century, a priest named Valentinus was imprisoned in Rome for performing weddings for Christians, who were forbidden to marry. Whilst in prison, Valentinus fell in love with his jailer’s daughter, who he was supposed to be healing. He was executed on February 14th, but not before sending his new love a handwritten letter signed ‘from your Valentine’. Today, Italians celebrate the day by sending presents to their loved ones. A hand-woven basket filled with chocolates and tied with a ribbon remains a traditional gift throughout the country.

Although a relatively new concept in Norway, Valentine’s Day is growing in reputation with Norwegians even managing to come up with their own quirky traditions. One of the most popular is Gaekkebrev poems, rhyming love notes that men send to women anonymously on the 14th February. If the recipient guesses the sender of the poem correctly she wins an Easter egg. However if she fails to guess correctly, then she herself owes the egg, to be collected on Easter Sunday.

Although the 14th February passes in China without much attention, its equivalent, the Qixi festival China Qixi Festivalis celebrated throughout the country with its folklore known to all. As the story goes, two lovers, a handsome shepherd and a beautiful weaver, are separated by a great river and forbidden to meet. With the help of a sympathetic bridge-building crow, they reunite on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar year, never to be seen again by their cruel and dominating families. Today on this date (usually mid-August) the Chinese are expected to do one kind thing for their loved ones to replicate the generosity and kindness shown by the crow.  

Dia dos Namorados, translated as ‘Lovers’ Day’, is celebrated in the Azores and Portugal on 12th June (due to the date’s proximity to the Portuguese Saint Anthony’s Day). It is celebrated in a similar fashion to how Valentine’s is celebrated in the UK although one local variation does exist - on the evening before Dia dos Namorados, groups of women write the names of their crushes on folded-up pieces of paper. Whichever name they pick from the pile, is the person they should date the following night.

Costa Rica
Commercialisation doesn’t seem to have robbed Valentine’s Day of its traditional meaning in Costa Rica. Instead of sending expensive gifts and cards, Costa Ricans celebrate the day by performing acts of appreciation for their loved ones. These are not exclusively performed for partners however, with the gestures honouring friendships as well, the local name for the day is ‘El dia del amor y la amistad’ meaning Love and Friendship Day.

Posted on February 11, 2015 in Azores , Bay of Naples , China , Classics , Costa Rica , Iceland , Norway | Permalink | Comments (0) | E-mail this

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