15 Cities That Could Be the Next Pompeii
Volcanoes make some of the most dramatic skylines on earth. Any city lying in their shadow practically feels mythic.
Take Pompeii, which was a favorite place for Roman Empire elites to vacation before Mount Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79, raining down a 13-mile-high rocky plume of debris while a pyroclastic flow—a superheated combination of molten rocks, ash, and poisonous gas—rocketed toward the city at hundreds of miles per hour. In a flash, 2,000 lives ended.
Pompeii’s legacy is so iconic, it’s hard to imagine a volcano dealing a similar blow in modern times, but it has happened—and could possibly happen again.
Since 1900, at least three major urban zones have been hit by eruptions: St. Pierre, the capital of Martinique (1902); the Colombian city of Armero (1985); and Plymouth, the capital city of Montserrat (1995). When Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in 1815, its plume blocked so much sun that New York City saw snow on June 6 the following year.
But just because there’s a volcano on the horizon doesn’t mean you necessarily need to worry.
“Most volcanic eruptions are not large, and cities are not seriously impacted,” says Henry Gaudru, president of the European Volcanological Society (SVE) and advisor to the UN’s Decade Volcanoes project, which monitors the 16 most potentially destructive volcanoes on earth. Even though 500 million people worldwide may be directly exposed to volcanic risk, the United States Geological Survey’s Global Volcanism Program counters that prediction methods (like tracking magma temps in “dormant” volcanoes) have never been better.
Still, with the help of these experts, we’ve compiled a list of 15 cities that are most at risk of being affected by volcanic eruption. They may not be in immediate danger, but consider a visit sooner rather than later…just in case.
“The Napoli area is probably the most threatened modern urbanization,” according to Henry Gaudru, president of the European Volcanological Society. So you’d think a town that sits near the supervolcanic Campi Flegrei fields—and is just as close to Vesuvius as Pompeii—would be worried (especially since the port city’s small cobblestoned streets could take up to 72 hours to evacuate, while a pyroclastic flow could reach the city in less than six minutes). But wind patterns, which tend to blow northeast, away from Naples, are the city’s best protection.
Being the closest city to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hilo is well aware of its potentially precarious placement. Twice, in 1855 and 1880, lava from Mauna Loa covered land that is now within the city limits, and in 1984, a flow came within 4.5 miles of town. The largest volcano on earth, Mauna Loa produces lava at a higher rate than any other Hawaiian volcano and is riddled with rifts and vents far from the crater (meaning closer to the city). Luckily, lava flows are notoriously slow, giving residents plenty of time to evacuate should it ever come to that.
Affectionately called the White City for all the volcanic sillar it’s built from, Arequipa is Peru’s second-largest city and epicenter of the alpaca sweater trade. It’s also located on an active fault line less than two miles from the foot of the 20,000-foot behemoth El Misti volcano. Should the volcano awaken, threats include a torrent of ash, a Pompeii-style pyroclastic flow, or even an avalanche should an earthquake cause the volcano’s wall to collapse. But for now, El Misti is one of the least active volcanoes on this list (it registered minor activity in 1985, but the last full-scale eruption took place in the 15th century).
Puerto de la Cruz, Canary Islands, Spain
The fishing village that became one of the Canary Islands’ most touristy beach towns may have to contend with more than British tour groups gone wild: according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mount Teide (Spain’s highest peak) could also be one of earth’s most destructive volcanoes. In 1706, it took out the neighboring village of Garachico with lava flows, and it last erupted in 1909. However, Teide’s days of doling out damage are numbered—today it’s classified as dormant, yet remains on the UN’s Decade Volcanoes project watch list.
Legazpi City, Philippines
Legazpi City has grown into a flourishing tourist destination for its nature parks, black-sand beaches, and trails up to Mount Mayon, one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines (a country teeming with volcanic activity). Just be careful of this striking volcano and its nearly perfect conical shape: in 2013 five hikers were killed in a small-scale eruption near the top. The 900,000 or so people living all around its base shouldn’t be as concerned, unless poisonous ash falls were to render the air unbreathable.
One of the largest volcanic events ever recorded happened 3,600 years ago, courtesy of this devastatingly beautiful island that’s also a volcano—and destination for 500,000 tourists a year. The blast was so catastrophic that it’s rumored to have inspired Plato’s story of Atlantis. While it is still active (last erupting in 1950), scientists are more concerned with Kolumbo, a submarine volcano in the Aegean Sea that has serious tsunami-producing potential should it follow up its 1650 eruption with a contemporary encore (these days it’s behaving more like a field of hydrothermal vents).
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo
Located 12 miles north of Goma, a city on the eastern shore of Lake Kivu, Mount Nyiragongo is an 11,382-foot-tall beast with the largest lava lake on earth (one of only five such lakes in the world). The molten poisonous-gas-spewing pond nearly destroyed Goma in 2002, when a 1,100-yard-wide and 6.5-foot-deep flow of lava spilled over and barreled through the city, taking out the local airport and more than 4,500 buildings. Luckily, careful monitoring enabled residents to evacuate, turning the 147 casualties of carbon dioxide inhalation into a somber lesson in the benefits of preparedness.
Shimabara, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, is a well-preserved stomping ground of 17th-century samurai, traditional architecture and all. Miraculously, the city was spared when a famous 1792 eruption of Mount Unzen (25 miles away) sent a 100-foot tsunami though Ariake Bay, killing 15,000 villagers in the neighboring Higo Province. But since the volcano’s reawakening in 1991, scientists are carefully monitoring it should any heated mudflows (lahars), heavy ash falls, and 1,800-degree debris flows threaten the city.
Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano and one of the world’s most easily visited, has kept busy over the years. Records indicate that in 1169 and 1185, Catania was touched by lava flows, and then in 1669, more molten magma felled the city wall and obliterated large portions of town. But what did the resilient residents do? Refashioned that volcanic rock into the marvel of baroque architecture it is today.
Auckland, New Zealand
Fun fact: Auckland is built entirely on a 139-square-mile active volcano field. Since the field’s first activity 250,000 years ago, 50 of its volcanoes have sprouted—Mount Wellington and 600-year-old Rangitoto are two better-known examples. Still, the government of New Zealand has calculated about a .0001 percent chance of eruption in this field in any given year.
The name might not roll off the tongue, but the capital of Russia’s Kamchatsky peninsula is under constant threat from ash plumes, lava flows, and superheated debris that could tumble down from the 15,584-foot Mount Klyuchevskaya Sopka, which has undergone a series of intense eruptions since August 2013. Still, a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation (Volcanoes of Kamchatka) has spawned a burgeoning tourism infrastructure around Eurasia’s highest active volcano.
Batangas City, Philippines
Mount Taal is one of the world’s lowest volcanoes (just 311 meters above sea level) and one of the Philippines’s most popular tourist destinations (it’s a volcano inside of a lake that is itself inside of a volcano). While not acutely dangerous, Taal is considered one of the world’s most potentially devastating volcanoes—especially to Batangas City, one of the fastest-growing urban zones in the Philippines. The threat? Its ability to produce heavy ash falls powerful enough to crush the roofs of homes while making the air unbreathable.
The Andean city of Pasto—one of Colombia’s oldest—is best known for its intricate varnish technique, one of the world’s most well preserved indigenous handicrafts. The ancient air of the place is only reinforced by the presence of the Galeras volcano on its skyline. Its only recorded eruption came in 1580, but as recently as 1993, a small-scale eruption killed six scientists who had ventured into the crater to gather some samples. Today, scientists are most concerned that Galeras could issue forth an avalanche, which is possible due to the extensive hydrothermal fluctuation (and thus instability) of the peak’s precarious rocks.
Nicaragua’s capital is just outside its first national park, Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, an eerie 21-square-mile area of lava rock, wildflowers, and the Masaya caldera, a crater better known for continually seeping large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the air rather than large eruptions. But since the late ’90s, it’s gotten more active, with explosions in 2001, 2003, and 2008. Managua’s unfortunate location on the active Nejapa-Miraflores fault line has scientists doing earthquake-eruption double duty.
Quito’s rebound as an Andean tourist destination may require some cooperation from its neighbors. Cotopaxi, a snowy peak about 37 miles away (and the tallest point in Ecuador), once sent molten lahar flows as far as 70 miles away—though in the opposite direction. The quieter threat lies right on Quito’s perimeter: Pichincha, which had been dormant since 1660 but awoke in 1999 and covered the city with up to two inches of ash.