Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

The rain of fire

On the morning of October 24, 79 C.E., Mount Vesuvius erupted in one of the deadliest volcanic events in recorded history.

The nearby towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis had warnings.  There was a series of earthquakes during the lead-up to the eruption, which got a few people to leave the area -- everyone remembered that there'd been a powerful earthquake in February of 62 that had destroyed a number of buildings, and the skittish thought that something similar might be about to happen again -- but by and large, the residents just shrugged their shoulders.  Pliny the Younger, who wrote the only extant eyewitness account of the eruption (he was safely in Misenum, thirty kilometers away across the Bay of Naples, when it happened), said that the earthquakes that preceded the eruption "were not particularly alarming because they are frequent in Campania," and thus the majority of people in the area ignored them and stayed home.

This turned out to be a mistake.

The morning of October 24 dawned clear and bright, but there was already a plume of steam coming from the summit of the mountain that loomed over the four cities.  This, too, was nothing unusual; it's doubtful many people even noticed.  But at around midday, there was a sudden jolt, and the entire peak exploded, sending a column of ash, rock, and superheated steam an estimated thirty kilometers high, blasting out material at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second.  Rocks and ash rained down on the cities, but worse was to come; by evening, the pressure forcing the column upward dropped suddenly and the entire column collapsed, causing a pyroclastic surge with an estimated temperature of six hundred degrees Celsius pouring downhill at about a hundred kilometers an hour.  Anything or anyone left that hadn't been killed by asphyxiation or roofs collapsing died instantly, and the ash flow blanketed the region.  The greatest quantity of ash landed in Herculaneum, which was buried under a layer twenty meters thick.

But all four cities were completely obliterated, to the point that within a hundred years, most people forgot that they'd ever existed.  References to Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis, four prosperous towns that had been wiped out by the wrath of the gods, were considered fanciful legends -- a little like Plato's mention of the mythical land of Atlantis sinking beneath the waves.

Then, in 1709, a farmer was plowing his field, and the plow hit the edge of a buried wall.  It turned out to be a surviving piece of masonry from Herculaneum.  Something similar happened in Pompeii in 1748.  Archaeologists were called in, and gradually, the work started that is still ongoing -- clearing away meters-thick layers of welded ash to uncover what is left of the four cities.

Today it's a strange, somber place.  Wandering around its cobblestone streets, and looking at the snaggletoothed silhouette of Vesuvius in the distance -- the mountain lost almost half of its original height in the eruption -- was chilling despite the bright warmth of the sun.  We looked at remnants of homes, shops, temples, baths, the central forum, and even a brothel (each room decorated with highly explicit paintings of what services you could expect within).

We got to see some of the casts of the people who died during the eruption, their names long forgotten, their bodies entombed in fused hot ash, then burned and decayed away to leave a cavity that archaeologists filled with plaster to reveal their ghostly forms.

Many of the 1,044 molds of human victims were found with their hands over their faces, futilely trying to shield themselves from the choking, scalding ash.

Today, around three million people live in the shadow of Vesuvius, most of them in the city of Naples and the nearby towns of Pozzuoli, Bagnoli, San Giorgio a Cremano, and Portici.  Our guide said there were two reasons for this, and for the number of people living in other volcanic areas, such as Indonesia, Japan, Costa Rica, Cameroon, and Ecuador -- (1) volcanic soil is wonderfully fertile for agriculture, and (2) people have short memories.  But now that we have a better understanding of plate tectonics and geology, you have to wonder why people are willing to accept the risk.  A man we talked to in Rome had an explanation for that, too.  "Those people down in Naples," he said, shaking his head, "they're crazy."

Today Pompeii is seemingly at peace, its ruins as quiet as the cemetery it in fact is.  Flowers grow in profusion in every grassy spot.

But not far beneath the surface, the magma is still moving.  The processes that destroyed the region in the first century C.E. are haven't stopped, and the tranquil scene up above is very much an illusion.  After seeing the city, we hiked up to the summit of Vesuvius and looked down into the crater, the hole blasted out of the center of the mountain.

The whole thing was enough to make me feel very small and very powerless.  We flatter ourselves to think we can control the forces of nature, but in reality, we're still at their mercy -- no different from the residents of Pompeii on October 23, who knew the mountain was rumbling but figured there was nothing to worry about.  The rain of fire that was to come only twenty-four hours later was unstoppable.  Although now we can predict volcanic eruptions better than the first-century Romans, we still are at the mercy of a natural world that cares little for our lives.

But there's nothing wrong with being reminded of this periodically.  A bit of humility is good for the mind.


No comments:

Post a Comment