The most powerful volcanic eruption in the 20th century was Novarupta on June 6th, 1912. It was located on the Alaskan peninsula. It erupted 30 cubic kilometers of magma. It erupted approximately thirty times more magma than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens and three times more than the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which was the second largest eruption in the 20th Century. The deadliest volcanic eruption every was Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 killing 92,000 people. And the deadliest eruption of the 20th century was Ruiz in Colombia in 1985 killing 25,000.
Iceland’s unwieldy Eyjafjallajökull volcano began erupting ten days ago, raising fears that more volcanic activity could be on Iceland’s temporal horizon, and calling to mind the devastating eruption of the Laki volcano, which began in 1783 and led to the deaths of 25% of the population in Iceland.
People living in the shadows of volcanoes have always been in potential danger, and at times have had to face the danger head-on. The following is a list of the deadliest, followed by the most powerful volcano ever. Geologists measure the size and power of volcanoes by their Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), from a 0 (non-explosive) to 8 (mega-colossal), the levels of which correspond to powers of ten cubic kilometers of ejected material. In human history, there has never been a volcanic eruption that scored an 8 on this scale, but then there’s really only one way to measure the deadliest.
1. Mount Tambora, Indonesia, 1815. VEI: 7 (super-colossal). Death toll: 71,000 – 92,000 (disputed).
On April 5, 1815, small detonations were heard faintly in the distance, and a detachment of troops was sent out to investigate an attack, attributing the detonations to distant cannon fire. Five days later, about 7:00 p.m. on April 10, the explosions grew into the largest eruption in recorded history. It took nearly a mile of the height of Mt. Tambora (14,100 ft. down to 9,354 ft.) and released approximately 160 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material. 11-12,000 people were killed in the eruption, and a tsunami it caused killed another 4,000. Thousands more were killed by famine caused by the falling ash, which destroyed crops and farmland. The following year, 1816, was known as “The Year without a Summer” because of a volcanic winter created by the matter in the atmosphere.
2. Krakatoa, Indonesia, 1883. VEI: 6 (colossal). Death toll: 36,000.
The morning of August 27, 1883 brought four huge explosions from out of Krakatoa, so loud that they were heard in western Australia, 2,200 miles away, each of which sent a tsunami around 30 meters (100 ft.) high into the surrounding sea. The final explosion shattered the ear drums of sailors in the nearby Sunda Strait, and the pressure wave reverberated completely across the earth seven times. There were reports of skeletons floating on rafts of volcanic pumice all the way across the Indian Ocean for the entire year after the eruption, and the sky turned red as far away as Norway, where Edvard Munch captured it in his famous painting The Scream (pictured above), claiming, “suddenly the sky turned blood red … I stood there shaking with fear and felt an endless scream passing through nature.”
3. Mount Pelée, Martinique, 1902. VEI: 4 (cataclysmic). Death toll: 29,000.
The days leading up to May 3, 1902, were spotted with volcanic activity from Mt. Pelée, including a few moderate explosions and some earthquakes. On May 3, a giant swarm of ants and foot-long centipedes invaded the Guerin Sugar Works, and an army of fer-de-lance snakes flooded the streets of Saint-Pierre, Martinique, biting anything and killing many things in their path. Five days later, May 8, 1902, the main eruption tore open the upper mountainside, creating a pyroclastic cloud that leveled the town of Saint-Pierre with temperatures reaching 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. President Theodore Roosevelt called for relief action to be taken, and Congress voted for $200,000 in immediate assistance. Many other countries followed suit.
4. Mount Vesuvius, Italy, AD 79. VEI: 5 (paroxysmal). Death toll: 25,000.
Perhaps the most famous name on the list, Mount Vesuvius is no stranger to eruptions. Since AD 79 it is estimated to have erupted 10-20 times, and more before. The eruption of 79, however, was the most deadly. For an entire day, a rain of pumice and ash fell to the south of the mountain, especially on Pompeii, leaving debris up to 2.8 meters deep. Those who did not escape were buried alive and preserved in the positions they died in. Next, a pyroclastic flow engulfed Pompeii and the cities to the north and west of the mountain, Herculaneum and Oplontis.
Most Powerful Volcano
Yellowstone Caldera, Wyoming, ca. two million years ago. VEI: 8 (mega-colossal).
Geologic record points to an eruption out of Yellowstone National Park about 2,500 times as powerful as the Mount Vesuvius eruption of AD 79—probably the most powerful volcanic eruption the earth has ever experienced, dwarfing even the Mount Tambora eruption. Enough volcanic material was released to cover the contiguous United States with two feet of deposits—about 600 cubic miles of material. The eruptions caused the ground to collapse, creating a caldera about 28 x 74 miles in area. The hot springs, geysers, and bubbling pools are all evidence of continued volcanic activity in Yellowstone.
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