A Life in a Year – 18th March, the last Major Eruption of Vesuvius

The last major eruption of the volcano Vesuvius was in March 1944.  From 6th January to 23rd February 1944, lava flows appeared within the rim and there were outflows. The activity paused on 23rd February, resuming on 13th March. Small explosions then occurred until the major explosion took place on 18th March 1944.

In 1976 on a holiday to Sorrento we had a half day trip to nearby Mount Vesuvius which is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  What that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by previous eruptions.  It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years and that was in 1944 when it destroyed a handful of communities and an entire United States bomber squadron, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just take off and go somewhere else!

It is difficult to be precise but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around Naples.  The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent. 

The Italian Government and the City of Naples have emergency evacuation plans in place that would take nearly three weeks to evacuate the entire population to other parts of the country but as Pompeii was destroyed in less than three days or so they might want to work on speeding that up a bit.  Many buildings exist ludicrously close to the summit in what is called the red zone and there are ongoing efforts being made to reduce the population living there by demolishing illegally constructed buildings, establishing a National Park around the upper slopes of the mountain to prevent the erection of any further buildings and by offering a financial incentive of €35,000 to families who are prepared to move away.


In 1976 it was twenty years before the creation of the National Park and the route up the mountain was via a narrow, steep, winding road through some of the poorest residential areas in Naples.  These were people who have chosen to live in run-down houses and shacks, many of which still had evidence of the damage inflicted by the 1944 eruption. They lived in the potential danger zone making the most out of the highly fertile volcanic earth to make a living out of growing fruit and vegetables and selling these at local street markets.

The coach wheezed it’s way up the narrow road and around the hairpin bends to a coach park about three hundred metres from the top of the one thousand, three hundred metre high crater.  This was as far as it could go but there was still a considerable way to go up a dusty path of loose volcanic ash and clinker so it was a good job that we had taken the pre excursion advice to wear stout shoes and suitable clothing.  The track would almost certainly not have met current health and safety regulations because there was very little to stop careless people slipping and falling over the edge and tumbling down the mountain because every so often the track had slipped away down a massive vertical drop and occasionally had been propped up with a few bits of insufficient wood held together with scraps of string.  I understand that it is a lot safer now however. 

It took about half-an-hour to reach the top and that wasn’t much safer either with a path with a potential vertical fall into the six hundred and fifty metre wide crater if you didn’t keep your wits about you.   It was worth the climb however because it was a clear day and the views from the top were simply stunning.  To the west was Naples laid out before us and beyond that the Bay of Naples and then the Thyrrenian Sea liberally punctuated by tiny islands and islets, which looked as though they were floating on the water like precious jewels set in a priceless braclet.  To the east was the countryside and the vineyards of the region of Campania and the mid morning sun shone brightly on both land and sea below us.  The path around the crater was made of the same ash and pumice and on the way around I collected some pieces of curiously shaped lava that caught my eye and put them in my pocket and I still have these on show at home even today. 

Apart from the great views there wasn’t really a great deal to see at the top except for the great yawning crater and a big hole full of rocks waiting to blow up again some time soon.  I suppose the point of going to the top of Vesuvius is simply to say you have been there and not because there is anything special to see.  In the sunshine the colours however were fascinating, the rocks were black, brown, purple and umber and all over there was scraggy green vegetation clinging on to life in a highly improbable location.  There were little wisps of smoke and every so often a smell of sulphur and a little bit of steam drifting across the path just to remind us that this was a living and active volcano.  At the top an old man demonstrated how hot the rocks were by lighting a cigarette by bending down and igniting it on the rocks.  I think he must have got through a lot of cigarettes in a day and we were all impressed with this and left a small contribution in his collection pot but I have always wondered subsequently if it was some sort of trick.

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