Some of the most powerful volcanic activity occurred long before humans started populating the earth… which, given their catastrophic effects, is probably no bad thing. Some of the most powerful eruptions on record have not only devasted the surrounding areas, but they’ve also triggered global famines, acid rain, climate change, and the deaths of thousands upon thousands of people. Here, in descending order, we count down the 20 of the worst volcanic eruptions of all time.
Believe it or not, the entire Yellowstone Park is, in fact, a huge, active volcano. Fortunately for the thousands upon thousands of tourists that visit the park each year, there’s very little chance (a one in 70000, according to seismologist Robert Smith of the kind of super volcanos that shook the area in the distant past ever happening again. The first of three magnitude-8 eruptions to have devasted the area took place more than 2.1 million years; the second 1.2 million years ago, and the third around 640,000 years ago. The most recent eruption created the park’s famous 30 by 45-mile crater, while the three combined are estimated to have released enough lava and ash to bury the Grand Canyon.
In 1600, South America experienced one of its largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history when Huaynaputina exploded. Hot molten mud waves streamed down from the peak and covered an area of over 75 miles, while the ash that erupted covered a 20 square mile area around the mountain. So huge were the devasting effects of the volcano that it’s thought to have resulted in a drop in global temperatures, with the following summers being the coldest in 500 years.
18. Santa Maria
The 1902 Santa Maria eruption constitutes one of the biggest eruptions in recent history, and the largest ever recorded in Guatemala. The eruption sent thousands of tons of volcanic debris into the atmosphere and created a huge crater of almost a mile wide on the southwest side of the peak. The volcano remains active, with the most recent explosion of 1929 sending several pyroclastic flows down into the nearby settlements and claiming as many as 5000 lives.
The 1912 magnitude 6 eruption of Novarupta (one of a chain of volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula) resulted in the largest natural explosion of the 20th century. 3 cubic miles of magma and ash were spewed into the atmosphere, burying the surrounding radius of 3000 square miles in a foot of ash. According to Geology.com the noise from the explosion was so great, residents of Juneau, Alaska (about 750 miles away from the center of the volcanic activity) heard the sound of the explosion over an hour after the blast occurred.
16. Mount Pinatubo
In 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in Luzon in the Philippines discharged a 22-mile-high column of ash into the atmosphere. As it fell, it buried much of the surrounding area in over a foot of ash and volcanic material. The poisonous clouds of Sulphur dioxide and other gasses were carried over vast swathes of the globe, resulting in a climatic change that saw temperatures drop by 1-degree Fahrenheit over the following year.
15. Ambrym Island
In 50 A.D., a magnitude 6 eruption on the volcanic Ambrym Island triggered a wave of ash and dust that created a 7.5 miles wide caldera. The volcano remains active, erupting more than 50 times since 1774. One of the worst in recent history occurred in 1894, when 10 people were killed. In 1979, meanwhile, an eruption poisoned the atmosphere to such an extent it sent clouds of acid rain over the island, resulting in serious burns to some of the island’s inhabitants.
El Savador’s Ilopango may only have erupted twice in recorded history, but the first eruption in 450 AD was of such a magnitude it deserves its title of one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. The climax of the eruptions sent massive clouds of ash and volcanic gasses into the air, covering huge swathes of central and western El Salvador, destroying numerous early Mayan settlements and forcing inhabitants to flee from the highlands of El Salvador to the lowlands of the north.
13. Mt. Thera
1610 B.C. was the year that witnessed what scientists consider to be one of the strongest volcanic eruptions the world has ever seen. Although no written records exist, the eruption of Mt. Thora, which is thought to have measured a 7 on the Volcanic Eruption Index, is believed to have been anticipated by the island’s inhabitants, with the majority escaping in time to avoid too many fatalities. However, the vast quantities of Sulphur Dioxide that were generated, along with the subsequent tsunamis triggered by the explosion, caused huge distribution along with a drop in global temperatures.
In 1000 AD, the Changbaishan Volcano on the border of China and North Korea erupted, spewing huge clouds of volcanic material over 750 miles. Such was its power, it managed to create a half mile long caldera at the mountains summit: today, the caldera is Lake Tianchi, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
11. Mount Galunggung
Mount Galunggung sits around 50 miles southeast of the West Java provincial capital of Bandung. To date, its most devastating activity occurred in 1822, when an eruption produced hot mudslides and pyroclastic flows resulting in the deaths of over 4000 people. The last major eruption took place in 1982, causing the death of 18 people in traffic accidents and by starvation.
10. El Chichón
In 1982, El Chichón, an active volcano in Francisco León, north-western Chiapas, Mexico, erupted. The scale of the eruption may be overshadowed by some of our other entries. but its impact on the global climate was nonetheless devasting. In the wake of the eruption, a magma flow descended into 9 nearby villages, killing over 2000 people and covering the landscape within an 8m radius with up to 40cm of ash. Key infrastructures were destroyed, and up to 24,000 km2 of agriculture land was left devastated. The cost of the damage is believed to amount to around $132 million in today’s money.
Kelud, an active stratovolcano in East Java, Indonesia, is one of the most active volcanoes in the region, with 30 eruptions on recorded history. The first account of its destructive activities dates to 1334, but it was the eruption of 1919 that claimed the most lives. The eruption triggered several hot mudflows that descended on the nearby region, killing an estimating 5000 people and leaving many more with severe burns. Since then, there have been two further major eruptions: in 2007, more than 30,000 residents were evacuated after scientists detected signs of an imminent eruption, while in 2014, an eruption resulted in the destruction of 2,304 buildings.
8. Nevado del Ruiz
Nevado del Ruiz is a volcano located about 80 miles west of the Columbian capital city of Bogotá. The first eruption took place around 1.8 million years ago; since then, there’ve been several significant eruptions, with the most recent, and devastating, occurring in November 1985. Reaching a value of 3 on the Volcanic Eruption Index, the eruption ejected around 700,00 tons of Sulphur into the air and produced lahars of water, ice, pumice, and other rocks that descended from the volcano at a speed of 60 km per hour, destroying mass amounts of vegetations, all but erasing the town of Armero (with three quarters of its 28700 residents killed instantly), and killing an another 1800 people as they made their way through the valley of Chinchiná River. The eruption constitutes the 2nd deadliest volcanic disaster of the 20th century.
The eruption of Laki, a volcanic fissure in the south of Iceland, constituted one of the worst volcano-related disasters of the 18th century. The eruption occurred over an 8 month period between June 1783 and February 1784, sending out an estimated 42 billion tons of basalt lava and poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide into the surrounding atmosphere, killing 50% of Iceland’s livestock and destroying huge swathes of crops. The effect on the country’s agriculture was devastating, and more than 25% of Iceland’s population died as a result of the famine that ensued. The effect of the disaster extended far beyond the island: as well as triggering a drop in global temperature, over 120 million tons of Sulphur dioxide was discharged into the Northern Hemisphere, resulting in mass crop failure in Europe and droughts in North Africa and India.
6. Mount Vesuvius
One of the most famous (and catastrophic) volcano-related disasters occurred with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The eruption triggered a 21-mile-high cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases, releasing thermal energy a hundred thousand times greater than that released by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings. Although the exact number of casualties is unknown, it’s believed over 1000 people died in the eruption, which all but obliterated the Roman cities of Pompeii (which stands as a monument of the tragedy to this day), Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae. Vesuvius remains Europe’s most active volcano and is widely regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, in part because of the 3 million-plus inhabitants surrounding it, as well as its tendency towards “Plinian type” volcanoes.
5. Mount Unzen
In 1792, Mount Unzen, a volcanic group of numerous overlapping stratovolcanoes on the island of Kyushu, Japan, erupted, triggering a megatsunami that killed 14,524 in what remains Japan’s most fatal volcano-related natural disaster. The volcano remained dormant until 1990, when a pyroclastic flow created by the collapse of a lava dome resulted in the deaths of 43 scientists and journalists.
4. Mount Samalas
In 1257, Mount Samalas erupted. The eruption measured 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, making it one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The violence of the eruption triggered pyroclastic flows that devasted much of Lombok Island and even parts of the neighboring island of Sumbawa. Many of the island’ settlements, including the city of Pamalan, were obliterated, while the clouds of ash that erupted from the volcano reached as far away as Java, almost 210 miles distant. The effects of the volcano lived on far after the dust had settled, with the climate change that ensued resulting in social distress, famines, and even political upheaval on a global scale.
3. Mount Pelée
The eruption of Mount Pelée, a volcano at the northern end of Martinique, in 1902 is one of the worst volcanic disasters of the 20th century. Within just a few minutes of the eruption, 28,000 people had perished. The only three survivors of the disaster were Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who had the good fortune of being locked up in a jail cell at the time, Léon Compère-Léandre, who escaped with severe burns, and Havivra Da Ifrile, a young girl who managed to escape the tragedy with only minor injuries after taking a boat to a cave down-shore of the center of the activity.
In 1883, the weeks of rumbling that predicated one of the worst volcanic eruptions of the 19th century reached their climax. The huge explosion that ensued spewed huge quantities of rock, ash, and pumice into the atmosphere, while the noise from the explosion could be heard for thousands of miles. Devasting though the eruption was, the ensuing mega-tsunami was even more so, obliterating settlements and killing more than 34000 people.
The worst volcano-related disaster the world has ever witnessed occurred on the Sumbawa Island of Indonesia in 1815. The explosion of Mount Tambora, which ranks as a 7 (or "super-colossal") on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the second-highest rating in the index, reached its climax in April 1815. The deafening noise of the eruption could be heard as far away as Sumatra Island, located more than 1,200 miles from the site of the explosion, while the clouds of heavy ash pumped into the atmosphere reached even greater distances. The worst effects were felt on the surrounding area, however, with local settlements devasted and more than 71000 people killed.
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Written by Dana Hanson
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