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Attivitá vulcanica in Italia (Volcanic activity in Italy)

Geography: The language of Europe - Attivitá vulcanica in Italia (Volcanic activity in Italy)

Geography: The language of Europe

Key questions

  • What happened during the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius?
  • How is the ‘Vesuvia' Relocation Programme aiming to reduce hazard impacts?
  • What are the reasons for and against staying in the Red Zone?

Key concepts

  • Place
  • Space
  • Physical and Human processes
  • Cultural understanding and diversity

What happened during the AD 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius?

Mount Vesuvius (Italian = Monte Vesuvio) is an active stratovolcano (meaning it is made up of layers of ash and lava from different eruptions - for example the AD 79 eruption was ash and cinders, the last eruption in 1944 was lava). It is about nine kilometre east of Naples, on the coast of the Bay of Naples, a natural harbour in Italy. It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years, although it is currently in an inactive phase - the longest inactive phase in nearly 500 years of its history, prompting caution amongst many people. It is today regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because of the population of 3,000,000 people now living close to it and its tendency towards explosive eruptions. It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world. More detailed information can be found on the Wikipedia website.

Mount Vesuvius is best known for its eruption in AD 79 that led to extensive destruction throughout the region of Campania. The cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae were engulfed. The eruption followed an extensive period of dormancy and surprised inhabitants. Two phases to the eruption on the 24 August and 25 August of that year are recognised, lasting for about 18 to 20 hours in total:

  • Phase one- widespread dispersal of pumices from a high eruptive column
    • In Pompeii, major causalities resulted from roof collapse
  • Phase two- Pyroclastic flows that resulted in the majority of deaths
    • In Pompeii, major causalities resulted from suffocation
    • Herculaneum was buried under 75 feet of liquid mud and ashes

Pliny the Younger provided the only reliable surviving eyewitness account of the events and this, coupled with modern scientific understanding and evidence from the ruins of Pompeii, has given us a good account of this massive eruption.

The AD 79 eruption has been categorised as a ‘Plinian eruption' (named after Pliny the Younger, a 17 year old, and his uncle Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption). Plinian eruptions are marked by columns of smoke and ash extending high into the stratosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas blast eruptions. An online exercise on how eruptions are measured and categorized has been suggested in the teacher notes as an extension task for more able students, and it can be found on the NOVA Online website.

How is the ‘Vesuvia' Relocation Programme aiming to reduce hazard impacts?

In 2003, the Civil Protection Agency launched the Vesuvia programme aiming to relocate 20% of the population in the Zona Rossa or Red Zone on the flanks of Vesuvius. This is the area identified as being most at risk from a pyroclastic surge such as that which occurred during the AD 79 eruption, which would decimate everything in its path. Other zones have also been identified as blue - at risk from lahars (mud flows) and a yellow zone at risk from Tephra-fallout (air-borne ash, cinders and volcanic bombs) which in great enough volumes can cause roof-collapse.

Some 724 million Euros will be invested over the 15 year period of the project in order to:

  • Prevent further illegal and unauthorized building in the zone (much has taken place since 1944)
  • Demolish existing illegal and unauthorized buildings
  • Fund a 30,000 Euro carrot to each family approached, to tempt them to relocate outside of the red zone
  • Transfer public buildings and build new homes to accommodate those being relocated
  • Make improvements to roads and other communication networks to make evacuation easier
  • Provide education and develop public awareness strategies on the volcanic risk
  • Provide a 10 million Euro fund to enable people to turn their residences into guest accommodation hostels

However, to date only about 2,500 applications have been received and the reasons for staying are often outweighing the relatively small sum of 30,000 Euros to relocate a family, especially if a large one.

An evacuation plan is also being developed although this has been heavily criticised for being unrealistic and poorly thought-through. Practice drills have been poorly attended and chaotic. Despite the fact that modern science and equipment can help us to predict eruptions, Vesuvius has a history of sudden-onset and explosively violent eruptions. Given the fact that the current period of dormancy is also very extended, there are serious concerns over the warning period and time available to actually evacuate such huge volumes of people - some 600,000 from the red zone alone. An eruption of the 1931 scale could affect up to three million people.

What are the reasons for and against staying in the Red Zone?

Reasons for staying include things like:

  • Thirty thousand Euros is not a large sum of money to fund relocation
  • People have lived in the region all their lives and have strong ties to their community
  • There are good economic opportunities (18% of Italy's GDP comes from this region)
  • Volcanic areas provide fertile farmland with excellent conditions for vineyards, tomatoes, olives and lemons
  • There is a degree of indifference and apathy amongst the population - people are not fully aware of the risk or do not consider it to be great enough to persuade them to leave the area
  • The natural harbour, scenery and clean air make this a very desirable place to live
  • Evacuation plans reassure people that they'll be looked after in the event of an eruption
  • The observatory uses state-of-the-art equipment and ground, as well as satellite technology to monitor the volcano's every move. As a result, people feel reassured and protected. No magma has been detected so far within 10km of the surface, indicating that the volcano is only in the very early stages of an eruption at most

In 1984, 40,000 people were evacuated from the Campi Flegrei area, another volcanic complex near Naples, but no eruption occurred - false alarms like this do nothing to make people think that there is a good reason for them to move.

Reasons for going include:

  • Many people agree that the long dormancy of Vesuvius is not a good sign, and that the next eruption will be at least sub-plinian in scale
  • Everything in the ‘red zone' would be obliterated
  • The south and south-east slopes are most at risk due to the prevailing wind direction
  • Evacuation plans have been heavily criticised and may not be very reassuring
  • Since 1944 rapid and often illegal and poorly constructed building has taken place which may not withstand the earthquakes which usually precede an eruption
  • Three million people would be affected

What could be done? - some ideas which more able students could come up with are as follows:

  • A new relocation strategy focusing on renters who have fewer economic incentives to stay in the region
  • Urban planning which takes into account the earthquakes which will come before an eruption
  • The assigning of more Carabinieri (police) to assist the local government administration that has been systematically banning and removing illegal buildings on the slopes of Vesuvius
  • A more comprehensive evacuation strategy, based upon educating the area's population

People should know and be comfortable with:

  • The realities of living on the slopes of a volcano, and indifference to the risk should be challenged
  • Each individual citizen should know what to do and where to go in the event of another volcanic eruption





Starter one - Geography

The final hours

Mount Vesuvius is one of the most famous volcanoes in the world.

What do you know about the volcano already? Discuss your thoughts with your partner and then share them with the rest of the class.

You can find out more about Mount Vesuvius on the Geology.com website. There is also a live webcam of the volcano you can watch.

You probably know that there was a dramatic eruption of the volcano long ago in AD79. Even though it was so long ago, quite a lot of evidence has survived about what happened during the eruption.

Now download and watch the video The house of Julius Polybius from the Archaeology Channel website. It shows a reconstruction of a house in Pompeii before, during and after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

While you're watching this eight minute video, note down what you see, hear and feel as the eruption progresses. You could write this up as a commentary for the video afterwards.

Discuss your thoughts with the rest of the class.

There is further information about the final hours of the family of Julius Polybius on the Rogue Classicism website.

Starter two - MFL

Monte Vesuvio in Italia - Mount Vesuvius in Italy

The interactive wordsearch includes 18 key words to do with the topic of today's lesson - in Italian. Some of the words are similar to their English equivalents. Can you work out what they mean?

If you are stuck, use an Italian dictionary to translate the remaining words.



Should I stay or should I go?

Today, Mount Vesuvius remains an active volcano. It is also considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world for several reasons:

  • It is the only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted in the last one hundred years
  • It is the most densely populated volcanic regions in the world, with three million people living nearby
  • It has a tendency to erupt suddenly and violently (called plinian eruptions)

Many scientists also think that another eruption is likely in the near future. This means that there is still a major threat to the people living in the region.

You can find out more about Mount Vesuvius, its history and the situation today on the Wikipedia website.

In this task, you should imagine that you are one of the 600,000 people who live on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, in what is called the Zonno Rosso (red zone) - the most at risk area.

The government has asked you to consider moving, or relocating, out of the area to avoid the risk of eruptions. The stay or go worksheet includes a letter sent to you by the government, and a set of statements about why you might want to stay or leave.

Sort the statements into two piles: reasons for staying and reasons for going.

Then make a decision as to what you are going to do, and write a response to the government's letter. Make sure you justify your decision to stay or leave. The worksheet provides more information for completing the task.




Read out your response letter to the rest of the class and listen to the decisions made by the other students.

  • How many people decided to stay, and what were their reasons?
  • How many people decided to go, and what were their reasons?
  • How do you think the Vesuvia Programme's evacuation and relocation plans could be improved?

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