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Nature’s Deadliest Killers

The History of Volcanoes in 10 Great Eruptions

Volcanoes are one of nature's deadliest killers. Breathtakingly beautiful yet devastatingly fatal, volcanoes have fascinated human beings since time immemorial. They stand as permanent reminders of the fragility of the human race—constantly at the mercy of the unpredictable ruthlessness of the natural world. Volcanic eruptions create and destroy landscapes, fascinate and terrify observers, and can even control our climate. Explore the history of volcanoes, revealed in the world's 10 greatest eruptions.

Thera, Greece—c. 1600 BC

At its height, c. 1600 BC, the Minoan civilization collapsed quickly and without warning. Their towns appeared to have been destroyed and their civilization entered eternal decline. With no prior indications of any systemic decline before this, archaeological debate has focused on trying to explain the phenomenon as the result of a massive natural disaster. Is it possible that the Minoan civilization was wiped off the face of the earth as a result of one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of all time?

Many archaeologists now believe that a colossal eruption of the volcano on the Greek island of Thera coincided with the Minoan's demise, and that the explosion could have wreaked such devastation that the civilization never recovered. It is estimated that the Bronze Age explosion sent a 22-mile-high volcanic ash cloud into the atmosphere, and traces of this cloud have been found as far afield as mainland Turkey, Egypt, and the Black Sea. Estimates have suggested the ash could have fallen to a depth of nearly 23 feet, easily burying the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri. Further, huge amount of hot-ash-flows into the Aegean Sea displaced so much water that an enormous tsunami would have devastated the coastal region of other Greek islands such as Crete.

The eruption is thought to have produced up to 40 times the volume of magma than the twentieth- century eruption at Mount St. Helens, destroyed and damaged crops, and been so significant that it could even have altered the global climate. The Thera eruption is also thought to have inspired Plato's famous tale of the Lost City of Atlantis (Sigurdsson).

Mount Vesuvius, Italy—AD 79

vesuvius volcano Mount Vesuvius is one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes Mount Vesuvius in Naples, Italy, remains one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, exacerbated by the fact that a population of 3,000,000 live in close proximity. The deadly power of Vesuvius was dramatically demonstrated in AD 79, when a monumental eruption wiped out the Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Vesuvius had been showing signs of activity for several years before the great eruption, the most dramatic of which was a powerful and destructive earthquake 17 years previously. Earthquakes and volcanoes commonly occur in tandem, and this phenomenon would not have been lost on the Roman population.

It is now known that the main cause of both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions is the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. These plates move both away from each other or towards each other, and this causes pressure to build up inside the volcano, which in turn leads to the movement of the magma within it. It is the release of this pressure that ultimately causes earthquakes and eruptions. Although the connection between the two would have been observed by the Romans over time, the perpetual nature of volcanic activity in this region meant that the warnings were largely unheeded by the population.

On August 24, in AD 79, Vesuvius erupted, spewing a column of ash and pumice high into the atmosphere around the volcano. The column rose more than 15 miles, and was carried toward the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum by strong easterly winds. Within hours, the cities were buried in yards of ash, and the volcanic cloud which accompanied the eruption blocked out the sun completely, leaving the area in complete darkness. The scene must have appeared almost apocalyptic to the cities' terrified inhabitants—but it was to get worse.

Between midnight and daybreak on August 25th, a series of six devastating pyroclastic surges wreaked devastation beyond comprehension. A pyroclastic surge is also known as “a glowing avalanche” of hot ash, and it powered down the volcano at speeds of up to 62 miles per hour, wiping out everything in its path. The second surge reached Herculaneum, burying it completely, and the fourth surge reached as far as Pompeii, laying waste to the city before the population had time to flee.

Recent excavations have found hundreds of bodies preserved in the volcanic material, with fear and desperation twisted on their faces for eternity. Nobody knows the exact number of people killed by that eruption of Vesuvius, but it is believed to be in the thousands (Sigurdsson).

Hatepe, New Zealand—AD 180

The Hatepe eruption at New Zealand's Lake Taupo is considered to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the last 5,000 years. The lake itself had been formed as a result of the Oruanui eruption, the world's largest known eruption in the last 70,000 years. But while no records can possibly exist of this event, the more recent Hatepe explosion was so huge that it was noted to have turned the sky red in China, and even in Rome.

The area had no human inhabitants at the time, but the eruption column is believed to have reached up to 31 miles in height, and the pyroclastic flows covered land up to 50 miles away.

The Hatepe eruption was Lake Taupo's last major eruption to date.

Mount Etna, Italy—1669

XXXXXXXXXXX Lava eruptions from Mount Etna are common Mount Etna, in Sicily, Italy, is in an almost perpetual state of activity and, as such, it is notable for being one of the world's most active volcanoes. Since 1500 BC, more than 150 incidents of lava eruptions have been recorded, and a countless number of smaller eruptions regularly occur at the summit.

The largest and most destructive eruption of Mount Etna came in the spring of 1669. An initial earthquake and consequent lava flow signalled the start of the eruption and destroyed or damaged more than 40 towns, leaving between 20,000 and 60,000 people homeless. After three days of serious earthquakes, a 7-mile-long crevice had formed from which torrents of lava flowed. The 65-foot-high city walls of nearby Catania were no match for the lava, and large parts of the city were destroyed (Decker).

Tambora, Indonesia—1815

In 1815, Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, erupted with such magnitude that it may have resulted in worldwide climate change. The volume of magma that spewed from the volcano is estimated to be around 24 cubic miles (Decker)—but more importantly, several million tons of sulphur dioxide were emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. The gas quickly turned into a large cloud which encircled the Earth and scattered sulphuric acid droplets in the form of acid rain.

It also led to a massive cooling of the entire Earth's surface, and 1816 became known in Europe and America as the “year without a summer,” where snow was recorded falling in New England in June (Decker). Despite this, it would be almost 80 years before scientists in the Western world would make a connection between the massive eruption at Tambora, and the worldwide phenomenon of climate change (Sigurdsson).

Krakatoa, Indonesia—1883

Krakatoa is picturesque yet deadly

In the late nineteenth century, British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson began his poem St. Telemachus with the lines '”Had the fierce ashes of some fiery peak /Been hurl'd so high they ranged about the globe?” (Lines 1-2). It is generally believed that Tennyson was inspired by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa which, like Tambora before it, created effects experienced the world over.

When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, the noise and the shock waves were recorded around the world. Further, stunningly colorful sunsets and sunrises, and a blue-greening of the sun and moon, were observed across the globe. Like Tambora, the gas and dust emitted into the atmosphere caused the Earth's temperatures to fall, and scientists now finally had the proof they needed to link volcanic eruptions with global climate change.

The picturesque scenes experienced by Europeans, however, mask the truly catastrophic effects of the devastating eruption. The 1883 explosion was the largest natural explosion ever recorded, creating a 37-mile-high ash cloud and, devastatingly, a colossal tsunami, which obliterated many of the Indonesian islands including Java and Sumatra, killing up to 36,000 people (Decker).

Mount Pelée, Martinique—1902

The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée on the Caribbean island of Martinique has been called the worst volcanic disaster of the twentieth century. More than 30,000 people are thought to have died in this eruption.

The volcano had been showing signs of danger for several weeks before the main blast, producing minor earthquakes and the emission of dust and ash into the atmosphere. Many people in the surrounding villages spotted the danger signs and fled to the nearby city of St. Pierre for protection. They could have no idea what was to follow.

On the May 8, just over two weeks since the activity began, Mount Pelée erupted in dramatic fashion. A burning pyroclastic lava flow sped toward the city of St. Pierre, reaching it in under a minute, instantly destroying everything in its path. The population of 28,000 had been swollen by the influx of refugees, and almost nobody survived. On May 20 a second eruption of comparable force destroyed anything that had been left of St. Pierre 12 days earlier.

An intriguing myth that a lone survivor escaped the blast is now disputed by modern research (Decker).

Mount St. Helens, USA—1980

Helens eruption
The 1982 eruption of Mount St. Helens caused economic devastation in the region

In 1978, volcanologists Dwight Crandell and Donald Mullineaux warned that Mount St. Helens, in Washington State, USA, would erupt before the end of the century. On May 18 1980, their prediction came true with horrifying consequences (Francis).

The disaster began with a large earthquake at 8:32 that morning measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, and triggering a series of explosions that increased in frequency and intensity. The eruption reached its peak with a violent explosion around 3:50 pm, causing the largest debris avalanche ever recorded to power 14 miles west. On top of this a large cloud of ash rose up to 15 miles into the atmosphere. The combined results of the seismic activity throughout the day devastated the landscape (Brantley).

The environmental cost was one thing, but the human cost was to be even more significant. Moments after the main avalanche, an explosive blast ripped through the area destroying everything in its path, killing 57 people.

But it was the indirect “human cost” which was the main tragedy of Mount St. Helens. Aside from the human lives lost, the eruption caused more than $1 billion worth of damage, primarily to the lumber and agricultural industries. Forests, roads, bridges, recreational sites, houses, trails, railways and wildlife habitats were obliterated or damaged. Tourism to the region fell and unemployment rose in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. The economic consequences for a region which supplies lumber and agricultural resources not only to the Pacific Northwest but also to the whole country were huge (Tilling).

Nevado del Ruiz Volcano, Colombia—1985

Nevado del Ruiz flood
Boulders 32 feet-high still litter the landscape around Nevada del Ruiz

Nevado del Ruiz in 1985 was the second most devastating volcanic eruption in the twentieth century (after Mount Pelée in 1902) and it killed an estimated 25,000 people. The deaths were almost entirely the result of a lahar, or volcanic mudflow.

The eruption itself was relatively small, but Nevado del Ruiz is an ice-cap volcano, meaning that it is covered in ice and snow. When the hot ash hit the ice cap, it quickly melted and a huge flood of water rushed down the steep-sided volcano, picking up mud, ash, rock, trees—anything and everything in its path.

The city of Armero, situated about 50 miles from Colombia's capital Bogotá, was totally destroyed, and a large proportion of the city’s 27,000 inhabitants were killed as they slept. To this day, a 3-foot-thick layer of volcanic debris covers the area where the city once stood, and boulders up to 32 feet high lie menacingly across the plain, as a dramatic reminder of the uncontrollable power of a volcano. (“1985”)

Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland—2010

eyjafjallajökull flights canceled
Volcanic ash from Iceland caused the cancelation of 100,000 flights

The almost un-pronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was to become one of the most well known volcanoes in the world when the enormous ash-cloud it produced in Iceland wreaked unprecedented travel chaos throughout Europe and the world, causing billions of Euros-’ worth of damage to the fragile European economy.

Between March and May 2010, the volcano spewed volcanic ash into the atmosphere, forming a thick, black cloud. Strong winds carried the cloud as far as mainland Europe, and for several weeks flights were canceled or disrupted, major airports ground to a halt, international sporting events were cancelled, and the struggling economy suffered a further blow. Around 100,000 flights whose paths would normally cross over the area were canceled, affecting more than 10 million passengers. The European Union Transport Commission estimated that the ash cloud may have cost European businesses up to €2.5billion (Gabbatt).


In October 2010, Indonesia's Mount Merapi erupted, creating multiple side-effects including a huge tsunami and volcanic ash clouds. The death toll was expected to reach the hundreds, and the environmental impact could be even greater. This latest eruption serves as a continuing reminder of the power and unpredictability of nature's greatest “sleeping giants.”

-- Posted November 21, 2010


Brantley, Steve and Bobbie Myers, “Mount St. Helens—From the 1980 Eruption to 2000.” USGS.gov. March 1, 2005. Accessed: November 21, 2010.

Decker, Barbara and Robert Decker. 1998. Volcanoes 3rd ed. New York:W.H. Freeman and Company.

Francis, Peter. 1993. Volcanoes, A Planetary Perspective, New York: Oxford University Press.

Gabbatt, Adam, “Volcanic Ash Cloud Could Cost European Business Up To 2.5billion Euros, Says EU.” Guardian.co.uk. April 27, 2010. Accessed: October 31, 2010.

Scarth, Alwyn and Jean-Claude Tanguy. 2001 Volcanoes of Europe, New York: Oxford University Press.

Sigurdsson, Haraldur. 1999. Melting the Earth, The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions, New York: Oxford University Press.

Tilling, Topinka, and Swanson, “Eruptions of Mount St. Helens: Past, Present, and Future: USGS Special Interest Publication.” USGS.gov. July 2, 2005. Accessed: November 21, 2010.

1985: Volcano Kills Thousands in Colombia.” BBC.co.uk. November 13, 1985. Accessed: October 31, 2010.