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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Sleeping Giant

By Phil Plait

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

This was the view out the International Space Stationâs cupola on Jan. 1, 2013, around 09:37 UTC, looking nearly straight down the gullet of Italyâs Mt. Vesuvius. Perhaps youâve 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 flowâsearing hot ash blasting outward from the stratovolcanoâs maw.

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

Thatâs why volcanologists consider it the worldâs 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, Iâll admit: Iâd love to visit, but Iâd certainly not want to live there.

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

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