Pompeii was a city of about 20,000 inhabitants settled near Mount Vesuvius in the bay of Naples, Italy, which witnessed the most famous volcanic eruption in recorded history. On August 24 of 79 AD, an eruption that destroyed the city and buried it under ash and pumice. This catastrophe claimed the lives of all the inhabitants of the city and has since become the poster child of catastrophic natural disasters throughout history.
Time Line of the Eruption
At around 8:30 am on August 24, 79 AD, an earthquake rocked Pompeii, destroying large parts of the city. This earthquake was only a prelude to the real disaster that was about to take place. At 1 pm, Mount Vesuvius began to erupt in earnest, spewing hot ash and pumice into the sky for 18 hours. On account of the wind direction, the most serious destruction was seen in the city of Pompeii and Herculaneum, located within a radius of 8 km from the volcano. An intense column of pumice and ash that stretched for 18 kilometres occupied the sky, and heavy rains of ash and pumice stones fell from the sky and buried the town.
Eyewitness Accounts of the Eruption
The Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who lived near the volcano, wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius. He described a ‘thick black cloud’ that rose over 20 km into the sky and formed a ‘column’ that was still more than 12 km high at 8 o’clock the next morning. He saw many people running in confusion, including himself and his family, trying to escape the destruction of Vesuvius.
The Destruction Inflicted by the Eruption
Hot ash and pumice stones descended on the city and buried it under up to 10 meters of debris. The heat of the ash was so intense that it turned parts of the city into liquid, killing many of its inhabitants and preserving the bodies in the hardened lava. Not only were the buildings and infrastructure destroyed, but also the people that were unfortunate enough to be in the city when it happened.
The Aftermath of the Eruption
The aftermath of Pompeii’s destruction was felt not just within the city itself, but also by the region and beyond. The eruption destroyed several towns near the volcano, as well as the surrounding countryside. It is estimated that 16,000 people perished in the eruption, making it one of the most devastating natural disasters of all time.
Rescue and Reconstruction Operations
Rebuilding was a slow and arduous process, with the initial main aim being to rescue survivors, who largely had to flee the ruin. After they were located, teams came to the rescue and reorganize evacuation efforts. Furthermore, the monumental task to rebuild the city of Pompeii rose. For generations, teams of engineers and scientists have worked to reconstruct what was lost, piece by piece.
Modern Impact of the Eruption
Today, the Mount Vesuvius eruption and its aftermath has become part of popular culture, inspiring books and films such as The Last Days of Pompeii and the Academy Award winning classic,
Pompeii, in which scientific studies of the region and its culture and history have provided insight into the far reaching effects of the disaster on the region.
Investigating and Documenting the Eruption
The study and ongoing research into the effects of the eruption, its causes and the circumstances that caused thousands of people to perish has been a fascinating pursuit for scholars and historians alike. This research has provided us with clues to the fate of the inhabitants of the city and perhaps, with more time, a clearer picture of the event will emerge, allowing us to understand the true magnitude of such a catastrophic event.
The Legacy of the Eruption
The legacy left by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD still stands today, and continues to serve as a powerful lesson to all of us about the unpredictable nature of nature. From ancient times to the present, human civilization has been constantly threatened by volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters. Even so, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius remains the most famous, and the most destructive, because it took with it the entire city and its inhabitants in one single moment. It serves as a reminder to be vigilant, and to remember that in an instant, great destruction can come without any warning.
Modern Day Protection and Awareness
Pompeii’s fate drives the research and implementation of advanced stage protections technologies today, with the aim of better protecting populations against the threat of volcanoes and other natural disasters. Governments, private investors and organisations around the world are working together to come up with plans and strategies to improve early warning systems against impending volcanic eruptions, and discover ways to mitigate the effects of an eruption or other natural disaster.
Public Education on Volcanic Eruptions
Today, schools and universities across the world have integrated the event into their curriculum, educating the general public about volcanic eruptions and their devastating effects. Basic precautions and guidelines for evacuation, health and safety in the event of an eruption have been disseminated and are practiced, demonstrating society’s growing understanding. All these steps ultimately serve to build stronger communities that are better prepared and more resilient in the face of an unpredictable future.