Past eruptions and future predictions: Analyzing ancient responses to Mount Vesuvius for use in modern risk management

The Campania region of southern Italy, dominated by Mount Vesuvius, is an enduring volcanic landscape which hosts a wealth of detailed information about human responses to past eruptions. This research taps into rich archaeological, geological, and historical data to bring together the past, present and future of Mount Vesuvius and the populations surrounding it. Records from the Avellino eruption (ca. 1900 BCE), and the Pompeii eruption (79 CE), their impacts, and associated social responses are examined here as two of the largest, most violent events of Vesuvius’ eruptive history which impacted human populations.

The Incredible Images of the Footprints on the Ash of a Person running away from the “Pomici di Avellino” Eruption, caused by the Vesuvian Monte Somma during the Early Bronze Age, 2nd Millennium BC.

 The social impacts of these eruptions are considered as valuable sources of information about worst-case-scenario events which should be utilized in contemporary risk management and emergency planning. The vulnerability and resilience of the Early Bronze Age and Roman societies who experienced the Avellino and Pompeii eruptions, respectively, are contrasted with potential responses of present Campanian communities to a hypothetical future eruption scenario. This work thus makes use of archaeological data from past disasters to engage with contemporary issues of emergency planning and risk management in the Vesuvius region of Southern Italy.

Past eruptions and future predictions: Analyzing ancient responses to Mount  Vesuvius for use in modern risk management - ScienceDirect


Mount Vesuvius is a striking feature along the Italian coast, looming above a dense population in Naples and Campania (Fig. 1) and casting a heavy shadow over human history. The volcano has an extensive record of nearly 50 eruptions in the last 20,000 years (Table 1; for a full list see Cioni et al., 2008), which includes perhaps one of the most well-known eruptions of all time: the 79 CE event which buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and several other Roman towns (de Boer and Sanders, 2002; Macedonio et al., 2008; Scarth, 2009). This eruption made the volcano infamous in both academic works and popular culture, thanks largely to the spectacular preservation of artifacts, streets, homes, shops, and human victims. Vesuvius further draws the attention of scientific and governmental communities because of the risk it presents to millions of people living on its slopes and in the surrounding plain (Cioni et al., 2008; Rolandi, 2010; Tadini et al., 2017a). Many studies assessing the potential risks of a future eruption based on geological and volcanological data reflect this significant concern (Dobran, 2006; DPC, 2018; Heiken, 1999; Macedonio et al., 2008; Mastrolorenzo et al., 2006; Tadini et al., 2017a, Tadini et al., 2017b; Zuccaro et al., 2008).

The numerous studies conducted to date on past eruptions and future risks from Vesuvius focus on the hazard processes and their potential spatial extents and largely neglect social and cultural spheres of response and recovery (Dobran, 2019; Riede et al., 2016). As disasters are by definition both natural and social (Section 2 below; Oliver-Smith, 1996; Perry, 2007; Torrence, 2016), this oversight is critical for risk mitigation and emergency planning. It would be useful, therefore, to consider social responses to past events when planning for future eruptions, following recent works by Newhall et al. (2018), Riede, 2017, Riede, 2019, and Torrence (2019) who call for greater attention to the social impacts of past eruptions through archaeological, historical, and geological research. The present paper reviews the social responses to two ancient eruptions of Vesuvius and the potential impacts of a future eruption. Drawing together data from ancient eruptions, their impacts, and associated social responses holds great potential for both volcanological uses – predicting and estimating future eruption events, and for sociological and policy uses – for risk management and emergency planning within disaster risk reduction (DRR) research.

The past eruptions examined here include the 79 CE eruption (henceforth referred to as the Pompeii eruption), and the Avellino eruption (ca. 1900 BCE), which occurred near the end of the Early Bronze Age. These events were chosen for several reasons. First, it is a thought-provoking coincidence that the Avellino eruption occurred approximately 2000 years prior to the Pompeii eruption, which is nearly 2000 years distant from today. Cycles of eruptive activity at Vesuvius follow a clear pattern: a major Plinian eruption occurs, followed by a period of persistent but sub-Plinian eruptive activity before the mountain falls into a period of quiescence. Upon reactivation, it produces disastrous Plinian sized events (Cioni et al., 2008; Sigurdsson, 2007). These cycles have occurred with an average time-interval of a few thousand years, and Vesuvius is currently in a period of quiescence (De Carolis and Patricelli, 2003; Tadini et al., 2017a). As the Avellino and Pompeii eruptions – the two most recent Plinian events – occurred approximately 2000 years apart and the 2000-year benchmark is drawing near again, Vesuvius’ next eruption could plausibly be a Plinian event.

Avellino eruption - Wikipedia

Second, each eruption impacted a flourishing society which was relatively under-prepared for a disaster of such magnitude (Albore Livadie et al., 2019; Beard, 2008). As discussions below will illustrate, both the Early Bronze Age population and Roman population may have had general knowledge of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions, but likely were not expecting a large-scale disaster from Vesuvius. Despite this lack of preparation, each society recovered and showed resilience in the aftermath. Thanks to an excellent archaeological record preserved by the volcanic products, the respective societies can each be assessed for their preparedness and recovery.

Third, the ancient eruptions considered here were among the largest, most severe events of Vesuvius’ eruptive history. Several studies recommend considering these massive, worst-case scenario eruptions in disaster planning, even if such high magnitude events are statistically unlikely (Baxter et al., 2008; Clarke, 2008; Dobran, 2006, Dobran, 2019; Mastrolorenzo et al., 2006; Newhall et al., 2018). The current emergency plans, however, only account for eruptions of significantly smaller magnitude (Dobran, 2019; DPC, 2018; Rolandi, 2010). Following these suggestions, the Avellino and Pompeii eruptions and their social impacts are considered as valuable sources of information for the benefit of contemporary risk management and emergency planning.