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The 10 Worst Volcanic Eruptions in World History


A volcanic eruption is the release of lava and gas from a volcano. Eruptions can be explosive or not, depending on the nature and composition of the magma. Thin and runny magma rarely kills people because it flows slowly, allowing people to move out of its way. Explosive volcanoes are deadly and dangerous, causing the death of people and the destruction of properties worth millions. The blast destroys the clouds and the hot tephra flowing from the volcano's sides. The clouds flow fiercely down the mountainside, destroying anything along their path. The world has experienced many catastrophic volcanoes, but none can be compared to these ten that are classified as the worst volcanic eruptions in history.

10. Mt Galunggung, Indonesia- 1882 (4011 dead)

October 1882, Mt Galunggung erupted, killing 4011 people and destroying approximately 114 villages. The eruption is classified as a VEI-5 volcanic eruption which stands for Volcanic Eruption Index number 5. VEI calculates how much volcanic material is thrown out during a volcanic eruption and how long the process lasts. Mt. Galunggung is found in the Pacific Ring of Fire in West Java, Indonesia. According to The Geosphere, The Pacific Ring of Fire has several islands in central and South America. The mountain resembles a horseshoe with a height of 2.2 meters above sea level.

Mt. Galunggung is a large and steep volcano commonly called a stratovolcano. A stratovolcano is an active volcanic mountain made up of alternating layers of ash and lava. An explosion from such a mountain results in many deaths because of the proceeding mudflows that sweep and kill anything in its path. The eruption of Mt. Galunggung started with the eruption of lava and boiling water, causing mudflows. This mountain is ranked as the tenth deadliest in the world. It regularly explodes every seven to nine decades.

9. Santa Maria, Guatemala-1902 (5000 dead)

Santa Maria was a dormant volcanic mountain for thousands of years, and it remained inactive until 1902, when it exploded, causing one of the worst disasters in Guatemala. It all started with several earthquakes, which were felt in some parts of Central America. The earthquakes led to a violent eruption that killed approximately 5000 people. According to Wikipedia, many believe the death toll is even higher because several people were reported missing afterward, never to be seen again. The volcanic eruption resulted in the production of pyroclastic debris covering 6 kilometers in about 19 days. The lava and ash produced by the eruption led to dark and smoky skies in Guatemala and San Francisco that lasted for several days.

It is estimated that properties worth $1 million were destroyed. The static nature of Santa Maria resulted in a high death toll because many people did not notice and headed to the warning of an oncoming eruption. At that time, Guatemala celebrated Fiestas Minervalias, one of the country's most famous events. The government was focused on the event and they did not release what was happening. It took the efforts of Quetzaltenango regional authorities to counter the situation. For many people, the eruption's aftermath was more catastrophic, leading to the death of families, friends, and relatives.

8. Mt. Unzen Japan- 1792 (15,000 dead)

Mount Unzen is a volcanic mountain located in Western Kyushu, Japan. The eruption in 1792 was one of the region's most catastrophic disasters, leading to the death of approximately 15,000 people. Mt. Unzen comprises several composite volcanoes found in Japan's region of the Shimabara Peninsula east of Nagasaki. This is where the major eruption occurred, leading to the death of thousands of residents. The eruption was followed by an earthquake that led to a landslide starting from Mayuyama peak.

According to Britannica, the massive landslide passed through the city sweeping everything along its way until it reached the Sea of Ariake, where it started a tsunami. The triple disaster devastated the nearby towns causing widespread death and damage to properties worth millions. The effects of the Mayuyama landslide can still be felt to date. The eruption serves as a reminder to the residents that the earth is unpredictable. What started like a normal day was one of the worst days in Japan's history.

7. Mt. Vesuvius, Italy-79 AD (16,000 dead)

Mt Vesuvius is one of the stratovolcanoes in the world. It is also known as a composite volcano, characterized by a conical volcano made up of alternating layers called strata. The layers are hardened by either tephra or lava. They also have steep summit craters. Mt. Vesuvius is found in southern Italy. The eruption in 79 AD is one of the deadliest explosions recorded in European and World History.

It started in the autumn of that year when the mountain exploded, releasing a cloud of hot gasses and superheated tephra into the atmosphere as far as 33 kilometers. The eruption spewed molten rock, hot ash, and pulverized pumice, releasing 100,000 more energy than the thermal energy produced during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

The events of this day give the eruption its name because of the different kinds of ash and hot gases released into the atmosphere. This event is a pyroclastic flows. The place where the eruption occurs is part of the Roman Empire, and several cities were buried beneath the pyroclastic surges and ash. The eruption is before the advancement of technology, and not much about it was recorded. After several archaeological excavations, the remains reveal a lot about the lives of the local inhabitants. This place is now a major tourist attraction.

6. Laki, Iceland- 1783 (23,000 dead)

The devastating Laki explosion occurred on a dark day in 1783. It is one of the worst volcanic eruptions because its effects are global. The eruption lasted for a record time of 8 months, emitting about 15 kilometers of lava. The explosion occurred in Iceland, killing 60% of livestock and poisoning crops. According to Australian Geographic, on top of that, Iceland lost approximately 23,000 people who suffered from the catastrophic effects of the volcanic eruption.

The explosion released sulfur dioxide into the air causing global temperatures to fall, and it started acid rain. Extremely low temperatures, poisoned crops, and acid rain led to a great famine that killed over 10,000 people in Iceland. This figure represents about a quarter of the population during that time. As the lava traveled toward Britain, it led to the death of 23,000 people and subsequent famine in Egypt. Some historians speculate that the Laki eruption is one of the main causes of the French Revolution.

5. Mt Ruiz, Colombia- 1985 (25,000 dead)

Nevado del Ruiz is a mountain located approximately 87 miles northwest of Bogota, Colombia's capital city. The mountain covers nearly 200 square kilometers, becoming one of the largest stratovolcanos in the world. The mountain produces magma on the boundaries surrounding the South American tectonic plates and the subducting Nazca. Mt. Ruiz eruptions date as far as 1570, withy the worst of these explosions in 1985. The eruption dates are13th November 1985 with explosions from the Arenas crater melting the ice and snow at the top of the volcano.

According to Earth Magazine, this resulted in mudflows that flowed down the valley and killed approximately 25,000 people. However, there were many casualties in the town of Armero, which the lava destroys. Melted ice and snow, volcanic debris, rock, water, and mud unleashed three lahars that traveled at 30 kilometers per hour, killing and destroying anything along its path. Finally, the lahars flowed to the neighboring town, pulverizing and entombing the town. The following day there were a series of eruptions.

4. Mt Pelee, Caribbean- 1902 (30,000 dead)

Mt. Pelee was initially dormant until 1902, when the mountain erupted, producing one of the worst volcanic eruptions in world history. On 8th May 1902, Mt. Pelle exploded, releasing volcanic debris and hot gas and destroying the city of St. Pierre. The initial signs of the eruption occur in April 1902 when people notice small tremors for a few hours. In the following days, Mt. Pelee trembled and fumed, producing fear in the residents of St. Pelee. There is a lot of speculation on what exactly happened on 8th May, but one thing is for sure it was a day that would change the history of St. Pelle.

It all started with an internal blast leading to the ascension of hot gas and volcanic debris. Within minutes the volcanic debris covered the entire town leading to the death of 30,000 residents. Most fatalities died from suffocation and burns that melted their skin and lungs. The release of hot gas produced extremely high temperatures between 350 and 400 degrees Celsius. High temperatures and massive explosions completely leveled the town and along with numerous massive stones along the way.

3. Mount Krakatoa, Indonesia- 1883 (36,000 dead)

Indonesia has had its fair share of casualties from natural disasters. The country has lost thousands of its citizens from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The eruption of Mt. Krakatoa is one of the most devastating explosions in human history. The eruption was so deadly that it destroyed the entire island on which the mountain resides. It all started on the morning of 27th August 1883. Mt. Krakatoa started emitting several massive eruptions that led to tearing the mountain walls apart.

The last eruption from the mountain led to the death of thousands. The final eruption was more powerful, producing four times louder than the largest bomb anyone has ever detonated. The airwaves of that sound is loud enough to strech seven different places around the globe. A series of tsunamis followed, killing approximately 36,000 people and destroying an entire village. Historians estimate that the eruption led to the loss of property worth $1.5 billion.

2. Mt. Tambora Indonesia- 1815 (90,000 dead)

Mt. Tambora eruption is the most catastrophic eruption to occur in world history. Approximately 90,000 people perished from the eruption, but the death toll could be higher since some people have disappeared since the deadly eruption. However, 10th April 1815 started like any other day, but it would later turn out to be a day when humanity faced one of the worst natural disasters.

Mt. Tambora erupted, throwing volcanic ash as high as 40km into the sky. This is one of the worst disasters in approximately 500 years. The eruption is worse because the magma flow was in the ocean, causing a pyroclastic flow that meant the development of several tsunamis. Severe sulfur dioxide emissions led to a drop in world temperatures and crop failure. However, thousands of people starved, increasing the death toll. Approximately 30,000 people died from starvation.

1. Ilopango, El Salvador- 450 AD (100,000 dead)

The explosion of Ilopango El Salvador is one of the worst explosions in human history and the last 200,000 years. The loud and massive explosion led historians to believe it was the main cause of the destruction of several Mayan cities. According to Volcano Discovery, the eruption's effects could still be felt more than a year later because the sky was clouded with ash and dust. This is the major cause of crop failure in the world this year, stretching from Rome to China. During the year Ilopango first erupted, more than 100,000 people died, and more than 400,000 are left homeless.

It is believed to have caused the the ancient global cooling recorded between 535 and 536 AD. The eruption negatively impacted the history of El Salvador, especially during the time when the Mayans lived and ruled this region. Thousands of people lost lives in the lowland areas of Belize and Guatemala. However, it was the end of Mayans living in the highland, and it took many centuries for the region to recover from the catastrophic effects of the explosion.

Dana Hanson

Written by Dana Hanson

Dana has extensive professional writing experience including technical and report writing, informational articles, persuasive articles, contrast and comparison, grant applications, and advertisement. She also enjoys creative writing, content writing on nearly any topic (particularly business and lifestyle), because as a lifelong learner, she loves to do research and possess a high skill level in this area. Her academic degrees include AA social Sci/BA English/MEd Adult Ed & Community & Human Resource Development and ABD in PhD studies in Indust & Org Psychology.

Read more posts by Dana Hanson

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