Photo of Mt. Vesuvius from Space Is Gorgeous, Terrifying

The entire universe in blog form
Jan. 4 2013 8:00 AM

A Sleeping Giant

I have a hard time seeing this as anything other than a paean to humanity’s inability to learn:

This was the view out the International Space Station’s cupola on Jan. 1, 2013, around 09:37 UTC, looking nearly straight down the gullet of Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Just a little more than 1,900 years ago, it blew its top in the most famous volcanic eruption in recorded history. About 16,000 people lost their lives that day due to pyroclastic flow—searing hot ash blasting outward from the stratovolcano’s maw.

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The volcano has erupted many times since then, including in the 20th century. Got that? It’s still active. Now take another look at that photo, and let the volcano’s surroundings settle in to your mind. It sits just a few kilometers from Naples, and more than half a million people live in the volcano’s red zone—where destruction from a big eruption would be swift and brutal.

That’s why volcanologists consider it the world’s most dangerous volcano. Given all we've learned about volcanoes in the past few decades, I hope scientists would be able to give people a few days' warning about an eruption. Science, after all, saves lives.

I have to admit, the ISS photo makes it clear how incredibly beautiful that area is and how wonderful it must be to live there. And, not to coin a cliché, I’ll admit: I’d love to visit, but I’d certainly not want to live there.

Tip o’ the caldera to Commander Chris Hadfield. Image credit: NASA.        

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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