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Mar 7 / Ron Schott

Fire and Brimstone: Parts I and II

Recent geologic studies at two volcanoes notorious for devastating historical eruptions shed new light on the past and potential future effects on nearby civilizations.

Mount Vesuvius is famous for its eruption of 79 A.D. (as chronicled by Pliny the Younger) that wiped out the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Although modern Vesuvius looms above Naples, Italy (via Google Earth) it was not until a recent study of a prehistoric eruption from this mountain that the nature of the threat to this major metropolitan area was fully understood.

“There was this Bronze-Age eruption about 4,000 years ago, and then 2,000 years ago there was the AD 79 event. It seems that just about every 2,000 years, there’s been a major eruption of this scale at Vesuvius,” said Sheridan, who has studied all of the major eruptions at Vesuvius going back to the birth of the volcano 25,000 years ago.

Perhaps the most extraordinary finding was what the authors call “decisive proof of a massive exodus” from the area, demonstrated by the finding of thousands of human and animal footprints, embedded in the wet volcanic ash and leading away from the volcano.

In a second study, geologists led by Haraldur Sigurdsson have recently published the results of a combined archeological/geological excavation of the deposits of the 1815 eruption of Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia.

The eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa in 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in human history, killed 117,000 people and extinguished the tiny kingdom of Tambora. After 20 years of research, a scientist from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography has located the first remnants of a Tamboran village under 10 feet of ash and has unearthed the first clues about its culture.

“There’s potential that Tambora could be the Pompeii of the East, and it could be of great cultural interest,” said Sigurdsson, who believes the village includes a large wooden palace that he hopes to find on a future expedition. “All the people, their houses and culture are still encapsulated there as they were in 1815. It’s important that we keep that capsule intact and open it very carefully.”

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