BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the spring of 2006, a paper published in a
scientific journal by researchers at the University at Buffalo and
two scientific institutions in Italy reported that approximately
4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, Vesuvius produced an
eruption that devastated the area now occupied by metropolitan
The authors suggested that this event -- more powerful than the
famous Pompeii eruption -- should be a reference for current hazard
planning for metropolitan Naples, home to more than 3 million
It wasn't exactly welcome news in Naples, where hazard
mitigation plans did not include the possibility that the next
eruption of Vesuvius might pose a serious threat to Naples.
The public debate that ensued, and which is still ongoing, is
explored in an episode of the History Channel's "Mega Disasters"
series called "The Next Pompeii?" which airs Saturday (Dec. 8,
2007) at 4 p.m. EST.
Filmed in part at the Center for Computational Research in UB's
New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life
Sciences, "The Next Pompeii?" prominently features three UB
professors, including Michael F. Sheridan, Ph.D., director of UB's
Center for Geohazards Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences
and an author of the paper on Vesuvius that was published in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
That paper inspired the idea for the episode, as well as major
international broadcast and print media coverage, including a
multi-page feature article in September's National Geographic.
The controversy that followed is a classic example, Sheridan
said, of how much -- or how little -- influence science has over
public policy on extreme events.
"There are lots of different ways of dealing with such huge
potential natural disasters," he said, "and frankly, one way is
sweeping it under the carpet. Always what's at issue is 'What are
the possible events and their probabilities?' Sure, a meteorite
could strike New York City, but the probability of that is very,
very slight. However, when you're living near a volcano, which has
erupted in the past, the probability of a disaster happening in the
future goes up as time passes. It's like living in a high-crime
district -- you're bound to get robbed sooner or later."
The media attention that followed the scientific publication on
Vesuvius could not go unnoticed by Italian civil authorities,
"The first response from national authorities in Italy was
rejection of the notion that the next eruption of Vesuvius could
bury Naples in ash," said Sheridan, who is frequently in contact
with his Italian colleagues.
After the initial controversy subsided, Sheridan said the
national authorities reconsidered some of the evidence in the
"Public controversy caused them to take another look at our
hypothesis," said Sheridan. "From what I understand, officials in
the city of Naples are now considering opinions from a broader
group of researchers."
While no new plans have yet been adopted, Sheridan said it is
"good and healthy" that the scale of the next potential eruption of
Vesuvius is now being reviewed by more experts.
"I think if the same people keep discussing the same problem
with the same information, they will always come to the same
conclusion," he said. "If experts with a range of viewpoints come
to the table with different sets of data and different models about
how a natural phenomenon works, the level of confidence in the
solution is bound to be higher."
New technology also is playing a larger role in determining how
to deal with extreme events, added Sheridan, UB professor emeritus
The Center for Geohazards Studies, which he directs, is one
component in UB's strategic strength in mitigation and response to
extreme events identified in the UB 2020 strategic plan being
implemented by the university with the goal of rising among the
ranks of the nation's public research universities. The center
represents an interdisciplinary group of faculty researchers from
the physical and social sciences, engineering and the medical
"Just in the past five years, we have been able to use new
technology to add various 'weighting' measures to specific models
or theories in order to determine the probability that an extreme
event will affect a given area. By utilizing all likely models, we
aren't forced into choosing one theory over another," Sheridan
"At the Center for Geohazards Studies, we're using a technique
called Bayesian probability, which allows us to attach a value to
uncertainties based on other assumptions. Such calculations are
useful in modeling a future extreme event," he said. "Current
research is moving toward developing models that best communicate
the hazard potential with the objective of minimizing loss of life
Sheridan's colleague in extreme events research, Chris S.
Renschler, Ph.D., UB associate professor of geography, also is
featured in the Mega Disasters episode. Renschler, whose research
focuses on geo-spatial modeling of natural resources, has
collaborated with Sheridan on ways to precisely visualize volcanoes
and model volcanic debris flow and other geophysical phenomena in
order to better predict how and where they might occur and the
impact they would have.
Maurizio Trevisan, SUNY Distinguished Professor and former dean
of UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions, now vice
chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of Nevada
Health Sciences System, also is featured on the History Channel
For decades, Sheridan has worked with civil protection
authorities in Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and other
countries, mapping hazards from active volcanoes to help
responsible authorities identify the best methods for protecting
Sheridan's co-authors on the PNAS paper were Giuseppe
Mastrolorenzo, senior researcher, and Lucia Pappalardo, researcher,
at Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Volcanologia-Osservatorio
Vesuviano and Pierpaolo Petrone, technical administrator at the
Museo di Antropologia, Centro Musei delle Scienze Naturali.