Vesuvius killed people of Pompeii in 15 minutes, study suggests

Cloud of ash and gas engulfed Roman city within minutes and suffocated inhabitants, research says

A giant cloud of ash and gases released by Vesuvius in 79 AD took about 15 minutes to kill the inhabitants of Pompeii, research suggests.

The estimated 2,000 people who died in the ancient Roman city when they could not escape were not overwhelmed by the lava, but rather asphyxiated by the gases and ashes and later covered in volcanic debris to leave a mark of their physical presence millennia later.

The study by researchers from the Department of Earth and Geo-environmental Sciences of the University of Bari, in collaboration with the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) and the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, has revealed the duration of the so-called pyroclastic flow, a dense, fast-moving flow of solidified lava pieces, volcanic ash and hot gases that hit the ancient Roman city minutes after the volcano erupted.

The lethal cloud had “a temperature of over 100 degrees and was composed of CO2, chlorides, particles of incandescent ash and volcanic glass”, said Roberto Isaia, senior researcher of the Vesuvius Observatory of the INGV. “The aim of the work was to develop a model to try to understand and quantify the impact of pyroclastic flows on the inhabited area of Pompeii, about 10km [6 miles] from Vesuvius,” he added.

The study confirms that the inhabitants had no escape, and most of those who died suffocated in their homes and beds, or in the streets and squares of the city. Isaia’s model estimates the gases, ash and volcanic particles would have engulfed the city for between 10 and 20 minutes.

“It is probable that dozens of people died due to the rain of lapilli that fell on Pompeii after the eruption, but most of them died of asphyxiation,” Isaia said, adding the pyroclastic flow would have reached Pompeii a few minutes after the explosion.

“Those 15 minutes inside that infernal cloud must have been interminable. The inhabitants could not have imagined what was happening. The Pompeiians lived with earthquakes, but not with eruptions, so they were taken by surprise and swept away by that incandescent cloud of ash.”

The INGV research described pyroclastic flows as “the most devastating impact” of explosive eruptions. “Comparable to avalanches, they are generated by the collapse of the eruptive column. The resulting volcanic ashes run along the slopes of the volcano at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour, at high temperatures and with a high concentration of particles.”

Today, the ruins of Pompeii are Italy’s second-most visited archaeological site, after the Colosseum in Rome and, last year, attracted about a million tourists.

“It is very important to be able to reconstruct what happened during Vesuvius’s past eruptions, starting from the geological record, in order to trace the characteristics of the pyroclastic currents and the impact on population,” said Prof Pierfrancesco Dellino of the University of Bari.

“The adopted scientific approach in this study reveals information that is contained in the pyroclastic deposits and that clarifies new aspects of the eruption of Pompeii and provides valuable insights for interpreting the behaviour of Vesuvius, also in terms of civil protection.”

Contributor

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pompeii will evacuate people to Sardinia by boat if Vesuvius erupts
Plan comes 2,000 years after notorious eruption and amid increasing seismic activity

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

18, Dec, 2018 @12:44 PM

Article image
Ancient scrolls charred by Vesuvius could be read once again
US scientists say it may be possible to decipher words using new x-ray technique

Nicola Davis

02, Oct, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Eruption of Vesuvius on Herculaneum ‘like Hiroshima bomb’
Archaeologist compares eruption at Roman town close to Pompeii to dropping of WW2 atomic bomb

Angela Giuffrida in Herculaneum

01, Dec, 2021 @4:12 PM

Article image
Pompeii row erupts between rival scientific factions
Volcanologists say excavations by archaeologists are destroying useful clues about lava flow

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

22, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Human remains in tomb are best-preserved ever found in Pompeii
Former slave who rose through the social ranks was interred at necropolis of Porta Sarno before AD79

Angela Giuffrida Rome correspondent

17, Aug, 2021 @11:56 AM

Article image
Sicilian towns face bankruptcy over Etna clean-up costs
Italian government earmarks €5m to help villages get rid of volcanic cinders from erupting volcano

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

21, Jul, 2021 @10:25 AM

Article image
‘We monitor its every breath’: inside Mount Etna’s war room
In the city of Catania, at the foot of the volcano, scientists are trying to explain its recent unusual behaviour

Lorenzo Tondo in Catania

22, Mar, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Boy, 11, and parents die after falling into volcanic crater near Naples
Boy is said to have fainted and fallen after entering prohibited area, and his parents tried to save him, but the crater collapsed

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

12, Sep, 2017 @3:03 PM

Article image
Mount Etna illuminates night sky with 1,500-metre lava fountain
Europe’s most active volcano produces one of most striking eruptions in decades

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

23, Feb, 2021 @1:56 PM

Article image
‘Sensational’: skeleton buried in Vesuvius eruption found at Herculaneum
Archaeologists find remains of fugitive during first dig at site near Pompeii in almost three decades

Angela Giuffrida in Rome

15, Oct, 2021 @7:33 PM