Almost 2,000 years ago a seaside town in southern Italy had the misfortune of being in the shadow of Mount Vesuviusone of Europes active volcanoesat the wrong time. Buried beneath 100 feet (30 meters) of sediment from that August night in A.D. 79, and from many more eruptions since, the 16,000 corpses of Herculaneum and neighboring Pompeii bear silent witness to the destructive force of volcanoes.
Objects of terror and fascination since the beginning of human time, they take their name from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. Today some 550 are active across the globe, with 500 million people living in their dangerous shadows. At any given moment, somewhere between one dozen and two dozen are spewing ash and molten rock from the Earths belly.
Death by volcano can come in many forms. In 1815, historys deadliest eruption claimed 92,000 lives in Indonesia. But only 12,000 died from the blast; the rest starved after their crops and livestock were destroyed. In 1883, 36,000 people died from a 100-foot- (30 meter-) high tsunami created by the eruption of Krakatau in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. A fast-moving cloud of hot gases killed 30,000 in Martinique during the 1902 eruption of Pelé, and in 1985, a tidal wave of mud from Nevado del Ruiz smothered and crushed 23,000 citizens of Colombia.