Living in the Shadow of a Slumbering Giant

Volcanoes have always been a source of mystery. They can slumber quietly for centuries, only to awaken suddenly in a manner that is both spectacular and deadly. Within minutes a volcanic eruption can devastate a countryside and destroy life.

NO ONE doubts that volcanoes are dangerous. During the past three centuries alone, they have taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Of course, most of us live at a safe distance from these slumbering giants, but millions of earth’s inhabitants reside near active volcanoes. For example, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a short distance from Pichincha, a volcano located northwest of the city. Mount Popocatepetl, whose name in the Aztec language means “Smoking Mountain,” is some 40 miles [60 km] from Mexico City. The large cities of Auckland, New Zealand, and Naples, Italy, are situated on or at the foot of volcanoes. In all, millions of people live with the possibility that the earth’s forces beneath them could roar violently, bringing a sleeping giant back to life.

A Dangerous Giant

The inhabitants of Naples have been coexisting with Mount Vesuvius for some 3,000 years. This mountain is located just seven miles [11 km] from Naples. It is actually a cone within the rim of ancient Monte Somma. Vesuvius ranks among the most dangerous volcanoes on earth. Since its base lies below sea level, the mountain is much larger than it appears.

Mount Vesuvius has a long history of activity. It has come to life more than 50 times since the famous eruption of 79 C.E., which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. About 4,000 people were killed during a destructive eruption in 1631. At that time the word “lava” came into use. Derived from the Latin labi, meaning “to slide,” it aptly describes the lava flows that run down the steep slopes of Vesuvius.

Throughout the centuries Vesuvius has continued to simmer. It erupted in 1944 during World War II, greeting Allied troops with clouds of ash. The nearby towns of Massa  and San Sebastiano were engulfed, as was the famous mountainside funicular railcar popularized in the Italian folk song “Funiculì, Funiculà.”

Today, the inhabitants of Naples seem to go about their lives oblivious of the danger that is so near. Tourists marvel at the historical and architectural landmarks. Shops and cafés bustle with activity, and white sails dot the waters of the Bay of Naples. Vesuvius itself remains a popular attraction and is viewed more as a friendly companion than a dangerous slumbering giant.

Auckland​—A City of Volcanoes

The harbor city of Auckland, New Zealand, is dotted with volcanic cones. Indeed, its more than one million inhabitants live amid 48 small volcanoes. Ancient volcanic valleys form two harbors, where islands are the remnants of volcanic activity. The most visible island is 600-year-old Rangitoto, which rises out of the water with the same symmetrical contours as Vesuvius. On the occasion of the island’s birth, a nearby Maori village was buried in ash.

Aucklanders have learned to live with their  volcanoes. The volcanic cone named Maungakiekie is today a public park and a sheep farm and is located in the middle of Auckland. Some volcanoes are now lakes, parks, or sports fields. One is a cemetery. Many residents choose to live on the volcanic slopes to take advantage of the panoramic views.

When the Auckland area was settled, first by Maori and then 180 years ago by Europeans, it is unlikely that much thought was given to its volcanic past. Instead, the land was simply available and close to the sea​—and it had fertile soil. That last characteristic is also true of volcanic soils in other parts of the world. In Indonesia, for example, some of the best rice-growing regions are in the shadow of active volcanoes. Prime agricultural areas in the western United States have soil that is largely of volcanic origin. With the right conditions, land buried in lava can sprout vegetation less than a year after an eruption.

Early Warning Systems

Many would wonder, ‘Doesn’t living near a volcano pose risks?’ The answer, of course, is yes. But scientists are able to monitor earthquake and volcanic activity closely. For example, the United States Geological Survey keeps an eye on active volcanoes around the world​—including those in Naples and Auckland, where contingency plans are in place. Using 24-hour satellite Global Positioning Systems and seismometer networks, scientists can detect magmatic and underground movement.

Vesuvius is under constant surveillance. Erring on the side of caution, Italian authorities have developed emergency plans to cope with an eruption of the magnitude of the one that occurred in 1631. Experts claim that those who live in the danger zone can be warned and evacuated before an eruption occurs.

Auckland is situated in what scientists call a monogenetic volcanic field. This means that instead of an existing volcano coming to life, a completely new one could form in a different location. Experts say that this would occur only after a period of earthquakes lasting from several days to several weeks. Such advance  warning should allow time for people to seek refuge in a safe area.

Keeping Risks in Focus

Although monitoring volcanoes is a vital task, it is of little use if warnings are not heeded. In 1985, authorities in Armero, Colombia, were warned of an impending eruption of Nevado del Ruiz. While the mountain rumbled some 30 miles [50 km] away, giving a clear warning, the townspeople were told simply to remain calm. More than 21,000 died in the mudflows that engulfed the city.

While catastrophes like that are rare, the quiet intervals between eruptions have been used for further research and preparation. Thus, continued monitoring, adequate preparation, and public education can help lessen the risks incurred by those living in the shadow of a slumbering giant.

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Are you ready for a natural disaster? Be aware of the risks in your area. Plan in advance where to meet if family members are separated and whom you will notify of your whereabouts. Keep emergency supplies on hand, including food and water, a first-aid kit, clothing, radios, waterproof flashlights, and spare batteries. Have enough so that you can be self-sufficient for several days.

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Visitors walking near the main crater of Vesuvius

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©Danilo Donadoni/​Marka/​age fotostock

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Naples, Italy, in front of Mount Vesuvius

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© Tom Pfeiffer

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An artist’s impression of the great eruption of 79 C.E., which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum

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© North Wind Picture Archives

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Rangitoto, one of Auckland’s many volcanic islands

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Above and right: Mount Popocatepetl, Mexico

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AFP/​Getty Images

Jorge Silva/​AFP/​Getty Images

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USGS, Cascades Volcano Observatory