Just across the Gulf of Naples from Pompeii, the Campi Flegrei volcano — a caldera that stretches as wide as 15km across — threatens some 700,000 people living within its red zone. As Helen Gordon shows in her 1843 Magazine story on the volcanologists tasked with predicting an eruption, managing a natural disaster in a dense metro area like Naples is going to be daunting, and made even more complicated by the skepticism of many residents and the region’s aging infrastructure. Scientists like Francesco Bianco, the director of the Vesuvius Observatory, are caught in an impossible dilemma: if they sound too alarmist, people could end up not heeding their warnings; but if they stay too laissez-faire, thousands might perish.

For Bianco and the observatory staff, one of the greatest challenges will be deciding when to trigger the final red alert. There are currently no set criteria for deciding this. (Kilburn’s…

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