POMPEII, Italy—A thin band of smoke rises from the cone of Mt. Vesuvius, a subtle warning that this supervolcano is still very much alive. A few miles down the flanks in the ancient ruins of Pompeii, a group of 55 experts wearing white hazmat suits and yellow hard hats tap at what’s left of the buildings in this once vibrant city. They are installing sensors that will measure a number of indicators, from humidity in the stone walls to vibrations from the volcano's seismic activity and nearby highway system, and beam data to a research team in nearby Salerno.
There are few places in the world where the effects of climate change can be studied so precisely or where human error has been so threatening to preservation. Excavation work started in the late 16th century, and has been stopped and started due to natural disasters, wars and budget crises. Some areas that were excavated early on were left exposed to the elements—only to be buried again after restorers realized the ruins were better protected underground.
Only two-thirds of the city of Pompeii has been excavated. Each time a new segment comes to light, much is learned about not only the history of the city, but about the ancient Romans who inhabited it. Recently discovered human and animal remains have helped researchers better understand how the volcano erupted and how the victims in Pompeii died. A trove of tiny good luck charms found in 2019 included carved closed fists and tiny penises, shedding new light on the lives of Pompeii’s slaves.
But as researchers uncover new areas of Pompeii that have been protected from the elements for millennia, they are hoping to quantify exactly what extreme weather and human neglect have done to these important ruins. The goal is to take these lessons forward and use them to protect Pompeii, and other archeological digs, from an impending future crisis that’s arriving faster than anticipated: climate change.
The multimillion-dollar project sponsored by the European Union, Italy’s Cultural Ministry, and the University of Salerno’s civil engineering department is meant to turn these haunted ruins into one of the world’s foremost research sites to study climate change. “Satellite data will be important; we can use it to observe changes extensively and in a detailed manner, with infrared, drones, MEMS technology, which involves small, box-like sensors that are connected by radio waves," Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the head of the Archeological Park of Pompeii, said. “With these methods, we could relatively clearly understand what has happened and act as fast as possible before damage occurs. The presence of water and humidity in the walls has often led to collapses in the past.”
The new project builds on the so-called Great Pompeii Project implemented in 2014 by the site’s director, Massimo Osanna, who is now the director general of all museums and archeological sites for Italy’s cultural ministry. That project, worth $117 million, reversed years of poor maintenance that led to the collapse of dozens of ancient structures in 2010 and 2011.
The new project will build on previous data, but will incorporate new monitoring systems that will help the park managers better protect the ruins—both the exposed areas and those still buried under the ash crust from the 79 A.D. eruption that blanketed the city. “Specifically, the frequent passage between extremes of drought and intense rains increases the physiological stress to which the millenary structures are exposed,” Luigi Petti, who is heading the project for the University of Salerno, told The Daily Beast. “Gusts of wind and storms could in fact cause a rapid deterioration of the ancient buildings present in Pompeii and, in the case of exceptional events, cause dangerous conditions. The project enriches the considerable skills and tools already present in the park with cutting-edge research.”
Petti said the project’s aim is to develop innovative solutions for heritage monitoring, leveraging advanced technologies to develop specific procedures and methodologies for the screening of the conditions of instability, deterioration and fragility that can cause the structures to collapse.
The use of infrared technology will allow those who are analyzing the data to move from the previous “snapshot” collection of data to a more dynamic data set, said Petti. The sensors will be connected to satellites run by Italy’s environmental research agency, ISPRA, which already plays a crucial role in observing Italy’s active volcanoes like Mt. Etna on Sicily and the volcanic island of Stromboli, one of the most active in the world.
Zuchtriegel believes the project will not only help save Pompeii’s ruins, but also provide a roadmap for the protection of other archeological areas. “Already today we have some worrying data regarding the effects of climate change on heritage; we must not close our eyes but work hard so that the climate crisis does not also become a crisis of cultural heritage,” he said, adding that they are mindful that the new data must lead to action. “We are already swimming in data. If we are not careful, the new data will simply be another burden.”
Previous individual projects, like the renovation of the site’s Temple of Neptune, were examples of excavations that had not been adequately protected after being unearthed. Inadvertently, these experiences offered a glimpse into what kind of degradation is in store for these sites if they aren’t safeguarded against climate change.
With lessons learned, areas of the Pompeii park that are extremely vulnerable can now be sheltered either by being covered or through other enhancements that protect specific areas including exposed ancient murals and mosaics.
The first phase of the new project to install the sensors and set up the monitoring is set to conclude by the end of 2022, and is being undertaken by Salerno students who are awarded six month scholarships to install the systems. After that, the project will run on three-year renewable terms and may extend to other universities, including some abroad that have expressed interest in data sharing.
The monitoring project will have no impact on tourism, Zuchtriegel said. The 3 million tourists who trample through these ruins every year won’t notice a thing since the monitors in any areas open to the public will be hidden away. Wild to think all these visitors, drawn to exploring one of the most famous archeological sites of ancient Rome, will be unwittingly stepping into one of the world’s most modern research endeavors as well.