Published on-line earlier this month in an open-access journal (link to the full article here):
Mastrolorenzo G, Petrone P, Pappalardo L, Guarino FM (2010) Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii. PLoS ONE 5(6): e11127.
The evaluation of mortality of pyroclastic surges and flows (PDCs) produced by explosive eruptions is a major goal in risk assessment and mitigation, particularly in distal reaches of flows that are often heavily urbanized. Pompeii and the nearby archaeological sites preserve the most complete set of evidence of the 79 AD catastrophic eruption recording its effects on structures and people.
Here we investigate the causes of mortality in PDCs at Pompeii and surroundings on the bases of a multidisciplinary volcanological and bio-anthropological study. Field and laboratory study of the eruption products and victims merged with numerical simulations and experiments indicate that heat was the main cause of death of people, heretofore supposed to have died by ash suffocation. Our results show that exposure to at least 250°C hot surges at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent was sufficient to cause instant death, even if people were sheltered within buildings. Despite the fact that impact force and exposure time to dusty gas declined toward PDCs periphery up to the survival conditions, lethal temperatures were maintained up to the PDCs extreme depositional limits.
This evidence indicates that the risk in flow marginal zones could be underestimated by simply assuming that very thin distal deposits, resulting from PDCs with poor total particle load, correspond to negligible effects. Therefore our findings are essential for hazard plans development and for actions aimed to risk mitigation at Vesuvius and other explosive volcanoes.