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UB researcher predicts huge volcanic eruption

Mount Vesuvius may be due for an eruption that could have terrible consequences for nearby Naples, Italy, a Buffalo volcanologist warns.

Until recently, scientists believed the area occupied by the present-day metropolitan area of 4.4 million on the Bay of Naples was beyond the reach of a cataclysmic explosion of the sort that famously buried the neighboring cities of Pompeii and Herculanaeum in A.D. 79.

But in a paper published last week in "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," Michael F. Sheridan of the University at Buffalo and three Italian researchers claim that an eruption about 4,000 years ago, during the Bronze Age, indeed covered what is now Naples -- and that a similar catastrophe might be close at hand.

They found evidence that during the long-ago event huts were abruptly abandoned and people and livestock were buried under more than a meter of pumice.

Further research uncovered "decisive proof of a massive exodus" from the area -- thousands of fossilized human and animal footprints embedded in ash leading away from the volcano. Those evacuees probably survived because the early stages of the eruption consisted mostly of a light fallout of pumice, a volcanic froth that is not always lethal, they said. But subsequent damage included the deposit of millions of cubic meters of ash and pumice over thousands of square kilometers of terrain that left it uninhabitable, the researchers concluded.

The eruption around 2000 B.C. was much larger than any currently anticipated at Vesuvius. Most experts expect the cycle of relatively harmless eruptions that began in 1631 to continue.

Sheridan and his colleagues, however, point out that a burst on the scale of the Bronze Age event has happened every 2,000 years dating back to the volcano's birth 25,000 years ago, meaning . . . look out!

"Using a standard statistical test, there is more than a 50 percent chance that a violent eruption will happen at Vesuvius next year," observed Sheridan, a UB distinguished professor and director of the geology department's Center for Geohazards. "With each year that goes by, the probability increases."

His team urged Italy to prepare for "a maximum probable event scenario" that would necessitate the evacuation and eventual return of millions of residents.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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