5 of the Biggest Volcanic Eruptions in History | History Hit

5 of the Biggest Volcanic Eruptions in History

Harry Sherrin

26 Aug 2021
Mount Yasur
Image Credit: Shutterstock

From the fabled eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD to the hypnotically beautiful magma displays of Hawaii’s 2018 Mount Kilauea eruption, volcanic activity has amazed, humbled and devastated communities for millennia.

Here are 5 of the most significant volcanic eruptions in history.

1. The first recorded volcanic eruption: Vesuvius (79 AD)

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On August 24, 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, releasing plumes of toxic gas that asphyxiated some 2,000 people in the nearby town of Pompeii. A torrent of volcanic debris cascaded on the settlement, entombing it beneath a blanket of ash. All in, it took just 15 minutes for Pompeii to disappear. But for millennia, the Lost City waited.

Then, in 1748, a surveying engineer rediscovered Pompeii for the modern world. And having been sheltered from moisture and air beneath layers of ash, much of the city had barely aged a day. Ancient graffiti was still etched on the walls. Its citizens lay frozen in eternal screams. Even blackened loaves of bread could be found in the bakery’s ovens.

‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ by John Martin (circa 1821)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The eruption of Vesuvius on that fateful day in 79 AD was witnessed by Roman author Pliny the Younger, who described the volcano’s “sheets of fire and leaping flames” in a letter. Pliny’s eyewitness account makes Vesuvius possibly the first formally documented volcanic eruption in history.

2. The longest volcanic eruption: Yasur (1774-present)

When Vanuatu’s Yasur volcano started erupting back in 1774, Britain was ruled by George III, the United States didn’t even exist and the steamship was yet to be invented. But that same eruption is still going to this day – more than 240 years later. That makes Yasur, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, the longest volcanic eruption in modern history.

Back in 1774, Captain James Cook happened to be passing through Vanuatu on his travels. He witnessed the start of Yasur’s enduring eruption first-hand, watching as the volcano “threw up vast quantities of fire and smoak [sic] and made a rumbling noise which was heard at a good distance.”

Modern visitors to Vanuatu’s island of Tanna can still witness Yasur’s perennial pyrotechnics display for themselves. The volcano’s peak is reachable on foot, so thrill seekers can even trek up to the crater’s edge – if they dare.

3. The deadliest volcanic eruption: Tambora (1815)

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The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was the deadliest volcanic eruption in recorded history, as well as the most powerful, and it caused a devastating chain of events.

The deadly saga started on Sumbawa – an island now in Indonesia – with the most powerful volcanic blast ever documented. Tambora released a blinding flurry of fire and destruction that instantly killed 10,000 islanders.

But the situation grew worse from there. Tambora threw ash and noxious gases some 25 miles high into the stratosphere, where they formed a thick smog. This haze of gas and debris sat above the clouds – blocking the sun and forcing rapid global cooling. So began 1816, the ‘year without a summer’.

For months, the northern hemisphere was plunged into an icy grip. Crops failed. Mass starvation soon followed. In Europe and Asia, disease ran rife. Ultimately, around 1 million people are estimated to have died in the extended aftermath of Mount Tambora’s eruption. It was, in more ways than one, a truly dark time for humanity.

4. The loudest volcanic eruption: Krakatoa (1883)

When Indonesia’s Mount Krakatoa erupted on August 27, 1883, it was the loudest volcanic eruption ever recorded. It was also the loudest sound in known history.

Nearly 2,000 miles away in Perth, Australia, the Krakatoa eruption resonated like gunfire. Its sound waves circled the Earth at least three times. At its loudest, the Krakatoa eruption reached roughly 310 decibels. The bombing of Hiroshima during WWII, by comparison, reached less than 250 decibels.

Krakatoa was also the deadliest volcanic eruption of the last 200 years. It triggered tsunami waves some 37 metres tall and killed at least 36,417 people. The eruption rocketed plumes of ash into the atmosphere which turned skies red across the globe. In New York, firefighters were called to extinguish blazes that couldn’t be found. The scarlet skies depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream might even owe their red hue to the Krakatoa eruption.

‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, 1893

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

5. The most expensive volcanic eruption: Nevado del Ruiz (1985)

The eruption of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano in 1985 was relatively small, but it caused untold destruction. “Nevado” translates to “topped with snow”, and it was this glacial peak that proved most devastating for the region. Its ice melted during the eruption. Within hours, devastating lahars – mudslides of rock and volcanic debris – tore through the surrounding structures and settlements. Schools, homes, roads and livestock were all obliterated. The entire town of Armero was flattened, leaving 22,000 of its citizens dead.

The Nevado del Ruiz eruption also came at great financial cost. Taking into consideration the immediate destruction of property – as well as far-reaching impacts like the hampering of travel and trade – the World Economic Forum estimates that the Nevado del Ruiz eruption cost around $1 billion. That price tag makes Nevado del Ruiz the most expensive volcanic incident in recorded history – surpassing even the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in the USA, which cost around $860 million.

In 1783 a massive eruption of Lakagígar volcano nearly forced the abandonment of Iceland as 15 cubic kilometres of lava was blown into the air. The effects of this eruption caused enormous death and destruction in Iceland but also led to the failure of crops across northern Europe causing the deaths of 25,000 people and helping to cause the French revolution. Dan spoke to Páll Einarsson, from the Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Iceland, about the history of Iceland's volcanoes and how their presence continues to be felt both in Iceland and around the world.
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Harry Sherrin