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8 of History’s Most Destructive Volcanic Eruptions

The devastation of ash across centuries and cultures.

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  • 'The Last Day of Pompeii' by Karl Brullov.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For many of us, volcanoes are out of sight and out of mind. But history has proven that even volcanic eruptions people anticipate can cause devastating consequences. Causing loss of life and the disruption of culture, these intense natural disasters play a strong hand in the way history unfolds. From the Yellowstone Caldera to Mount Pinatubo, here are 8 of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in history.

The Yellowstone Caldera, USA

640,000 years ago

When guests visit Yellowstone National Park, every step they take is atop an active volcano. The chances of the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting each year is roughly one in 700,000. While it's highly unlikely we'll see an eruption anytime soon, it should be noted that the strength of the last eruption was massive.

The Yellowstone Caldera has seen three magnitude-8 eruptions in its long history. The first was 2.1 million years ago, and the most recent dates back 640,000 years. This last eruption ejected approximately 1,000 cubic kilometers of rock, dust and volcanic ash into the atmosphere. A geological survey revealed that Yellowstone's three eruptions produced enough ash and lava to fill the Grand Canyon. The park's large crater—measuring 30 by 45 miles across—is a result of this volcanic eruption.

Mount Thera, Greece

1610 BCE

Tucked away on the Aegean Islands, Mount Thera is believed to have erupted with the force of several hundred atomic bombs in a matter of mere milliseconds. No written record of this explosion exists, but many geologists believe it to be the most powerful explosion to ever be witnessed.

At the time, Santorini was populated by the Minoan civilization. There are historical traces that imply those inhabiting the island anticipated the volcano was set to blow. Though they might have evacuated, it seems that the subsequent tsunamis and drops in temperatures from the outpouring of sulfur dioxide caused a massive disruption of their culture.

Mount Vesuvius, Italy

79 CE

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is perhaps the most well-known volcanic eruption to date. When this major stratovolcano blew, it became one of the deadliest eruptions in European history. A lethal cloud of super-heated tephra and gases unleashed from the volcano, towering up to 21 miles high. Then came the molten rock, disintegrated pumice, and hot ash, spewing out 1.5 million tons per second. This even produced 100,000 times more thermal energy than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and became the baseline for the Vesuvian type of eruption.

Several cities within the Roman Empire were decimated by this eruption, including Herculaneum, Oplontis, Stabiae, and, most famously, Pompeii. The affected region was buried beneath ashfall deposits and pyroclastic surges, preserving a snapshot of the culture for archaeologists to excavate for years to come. While more than 1,500 victims were found in the aftermath, the actual death toll of this event is currently unknown.

Ilopango Caldera, El Salvador

450 CE

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Ilopango volcano has only erupted twice over the course of history—but its first eruption caused massive destruction. The plume that rose from the volcano was roughly 28 miles high, and its ash spread more than 4,350 miles away, reaching Greenland. About 55 cubic kilometers of magma burst forth from Ilopango, and the eruption blanketed over 700,000 square miles of Central America with ash.

At the time, this region was home to early Mayan cities. The eruption decimated the cities and greatly disrupted trade routes. The inhabitants fled the area, shifting the center of Mayan civilization to Guatemala. Scientists say that any life within 25 miles would have been snuffed out.

Paektu Mountain, Chinese-North Korean border

1000 CE

Though this volcano has been dormant since its last eruption in 1702, its 1000 CE eruption left quite a mark. The eruption sprayed volcanic material across approximately 750 miles, reaching as far away as northern Japan. As a result of the eruption, a caldera nearly three miles across and half a mile deep formed at the mountain's summit. That crater is now Lake Tianchi, also known as the popular Chinese tourist destination of Heaven Lake.

Lakagígar, Iceland

1783

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1783, Europe saw a strange dry fog roll over the continent, bringing with it blood red sunsets and a sulfuric smell that made breathing difficult and eyes ache. Little did the Europeans know, this was fallout from a devastating volcanic event in Iceland.

On June 8th, 1783, a 15-mile long fissure ripped through the landscape, triggering an eruption that would last until February 7th, 1784. The eruption produced 14.7 cubic kilometers of lava which covered over 200 square miles. Though most of the Icelanders evacuated before the lava reached them, the eruption's consequences were what most remember.

The gases produced by the eruption—namely fluorine—poisoned the fields and water. 50% of all the cattle, 79% of the sheep, and 76% of the horses died between 1783 and 1785. Fish and other animal perished, too, thinning out most of the Icelandic diet. As a result, about a fifth of the Icelandic population died from hunger, malnutrition, or disease.

Mount Tambora, Indonesia

1815

Coming in at a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the eruption of Mount Tambora was classified as "super-colossal." A 7 is the second-highest rating in the index, and this eruption happens to be the largest ever recorded by humans. Forming one of the tallest peaks in the Indonesian archipelago, this deadly volcano is still active today.

When Mount Tambora's eruption peaked in April of 1815, the explosion was so loud it could be heard 1,200 miles away on Sumatra Island. As ash fell upon islands in a wide radius of the eruption, the death toll of this event reached an estimated 71,000.

Mount Pinatubo, Philippines

1991

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most catastrophic eruptions in recent history came from the stratovolcano Mount Pinatubo, one in a chain of volcanoes in Luzon. More than five cubic kilometers of volcanic material erupted into the air, forming a column of ash that was 22 miles high. So much ash fell across the countryside that the weight of it caused roofs to collapse.

The air was polluted with millions of tons of sulfur dioxide and other dangerous particles, spread throughout the world by air currents. The next year, this caused global temperatures to dip by one degree Fahrenheit.