August 24, 79: Mount Vesuvius erupts.

Much of what is known of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius comes from the descriptive epistles of Pliny the Younger (nephew of Pliny the Elder), who wrote that the event, which buried the nearby cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and others, was preceded by a series of small earthquakes that were not then recognized as precursors of the destruction that was to come. By all accounts, nearly everyone living within reach of the volcanic destruction was caught unprepared when Mount Vesuvius finally erupted - ejecting thick clouds of stone and ash into the air, and engulfing the cities in pyroclastic material, layered several feet thick.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 people were killed in the destruction, either from inhaling deadly gas fumes, from suffocation through ash inhalation, or from being struck by pieces of debris and rock. The subsequent rainfall turned the layers of ash and volcanic material which covered Pompeii into a kind of natural concrete, hiding and preserving the city until its rediscovery in the 16th century. Herculaneum was not rediscovered and excavated until 1738. 

Excerpt from one of Pliny’s letters/accounts of the eruption:

Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.‘Let us leave the road while we can still see,’ I said, 'or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.

A few days ago, my father – a retired professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Virginia – forwarded me this map that Rachel Nelson, a master’s student in Urban and Environmental Planning at UVA, made for an Intro to GIS class. Nelson’s map shows dangerous places in the United States based on natural disaster data. Given that the end of the world is scheduled for sometime tomorrow, I figured the map was worth sharing, both for its informational and its visual interest. Writes Nelson via email:

As a dedicated worrier, I wanted to use GIS to investigate where the most dangerous places to live in the US might be based on natural disaster data. I narrowed the criteria down to volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and storms with hail bigger than tennis balls (2.4") or softballs (4"). The tornado and hail data tracks all storms over the past 60 years to get a visual for general patterns. Earthquake contour lines show predicted hazard zones based off of past activity and fault locations at 10% probability of exeedance in 50 years. Triangles map active US volcanoes, which are all presently at “low” risk.

- Nell

Water is discharged over the traditional farm houses at Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on November 9, 2014 in Shirakawa, Japan. This annual drill is held to prevent fires. (Kaz Photography/Getty Images) Via

The village was built in the 11th century. Over the years, it’s been a place for Buddhist prayer, silk worm cultivation, and even gun powder manufacturing. Japan worked with international partners to set up this fire prevention system. They test the system to ensure its function. Very effective way of preserving historic sites from natural hazards.

In Middle Ages, Societies Surprisingly Responsive To Natural Disasters

(ISNS) – Our vision of medieval times is a world of violence and filth, when life, as Thomas Hobbes wrote, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Imagine the chaos in that world when a natural disaster like an earthquake, a flood or famine struck.

But, according to two British scientists, the societies between 1,000 and 1,500 A.D. were better organized than most people think, and actually employed some of the same techniques used today to survive or mitigate disasters, even if they didn’t always understand the causes. Read more.