When we think of volcanic disasters, the first couple that usually spring to mind are the Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D. that wiped out Pompeii and the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980. But while these are among the most famous eruptions, they are far from the most destructive in terms of environment, property and loss of human life. Here are the four widely considered to be the deadliest volcanoes ever.
Mount Tambora, 1815
Mount Tambora's 1815 eruption was so fierce that the world hadn't seen anything to equal its force since 181 A.D. during the Lake Taupo eruption of New Zealand. We think the Mount St. Helens eruption was pretty bad, but this one had columns nearly three times the height of Mt. St. Helens and topped it by two points on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. We know that 10,000 people died as a direct result of the eruption itself, but long-term implications were even worse: some estimates say another 82,000 perished as a result of agricultural and environmental devastation. Lt. Philips, who reported to British statesman Sir Thomas Raffles, was dispatched to the island of Sumbawa, home to the deadly volcano, to observe the impact. His report said,
"There were still on the road side the remains of several corpses, and the marks of where many others had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food."
The effects were seen even as far away as London, although the results there were more aesthetic than horrible: the sunsets and twilights were practically technicolor for a period of time in 1815. It's also thought to be one of the causes of the Year Without a Summer - It was so cold during the summer of 1816 that ice was found on rivers in Pennsylvania as late as August.
Krakatoa ranks #2 on the deadliest volcano eruptions scale with more than 30,000 deaths. Between just these first two volcanoes, I'm thinking Indonesia was not the greatest place to be in the 1800s. This massive eruption, ranking a 6 VEI, almost obliterated the whole island. Things might have been different if they had known then what we know now, because there were definitely warning signs that she was about to blow. Some smaller eruptions took place in June of 1883, which blotted out the sun with black clouds for five whole days. By the beginning of August, at least 14 vents were billowing plumes of steam, and by August 25, explosions were an every-10-minute occurrence. It all culminated on August 27, when four huge explosions happened within a time span of about five hours. The last one was reportedly ear shattering - some sailors in the Sunda Strait said they had ruptured eardrums following the 10:41 blast. And if you've seen Edvard Munch's The Scream,, then you've probably seen some of the long-term impact of the eruptions - art scholars think the vivid background behind the figure whose face is frozen in horror is the result of the atmospheric changes.
Mount Pelee, 1902
Although Krakatoa almost took out a whole island, Mt. Pelee at Martinique really did demolish the entire town of Saint-Pierre, which was the biggest city in Martinique at the time. Although the final blow wasn’t dealt until May 8, signs of impending doom had been creeping out of the volcano since the end of April, when the area around Mt. Pelee was coated with a layer of volcanic ash. By April 27, the whole town reeked of sulfur. Six days later, even the animals knew something was brewing. There were reports of swarms of ants and centipedes leaving the volcano area and invading the town (which sounds like a horror movie from the ‘70s); there were so many venomous snakes in the streets of Saint-Pierre that soldiers had to be called in to shoot them. After a few more days of ash clouds, volcanic lightning and small eruptions, Pelee finally reached the tipping point. Some people had evacuated, but many more stayed because the eruption of the nearby Soufrière volcano convinced people that the worst was over. They were wrong. A pyroclastic cloud – a cloud made up of insanely hot (1830 °F) gases, steam and dust – rushed down over the down and ignited just about everything it came in touch with. People died by breathing in the deadly gas almost instantly; there were only three known survivors of the some 30,000 people who had stayed. Louis-Auguste Cyparis was in jail when the blast happened and the ventilation was so bad that the pyroclastic cloud didn’t have such severe effects on him. He was still very badly burned, though. Another survivor, Havivra Da Ifrile, managed to get in a little boat and row to cave where she played with her friends. She said she heard the hiss of the pyroclastic cloud hitting the cold water and passed out as the water level took her boat precariously closer to the roof of the cave. She was rescued by a French boat after drifting two miles out to sea. The third survivor was Léon Compere-Léandre, a shoemaker who lived on the edge of town. He was with four other people and said he watched them just drop dead even though they weren’t on fire. It’s not actually known how he managed to survive because shortly afterward he dropped out of the public eye. Most speculate that he jumped into the ocean when the pyroclastic flow hit, and although the ocean water was boiling by this point, it wasn’t lethal. Others think he outran the flow, which isn’t very plausible, but he was rescued while running about six kilometers away from his house. Today, scientists are keeping an eye on Mt. Pelee – it’s one of the most active volcanoes in that part of the world and has a high likelihood of erupting again.
Mount Ruiz, 1985
Mount Ruiz in Colombia is the most recent eruption on our list, exploding just 24 years ago. It’s a lot like a modern-day Pompeii – most of Armero, the city it destroyed, is still buried under mud and ash and debris. But it wasn’t the eruption that killed the city, it was all of the things that happened as a result of it. The main culprits were the megatsunami and the lahars (a kind of volcanic mudflow). It’s estimated that the megatsunami was moving faster than 300 miles per hour when it hit the town and immediately blasted it into non-existence; it took less than 15 minutes from the time the volcano erupted to the near-total disappearance of Armero. A 13-year-old girl named Omayra Sanchez became the face of the disaster when photographer Frank Fournier took her picture (be warned: it's haunting) as she was trapped in concrete and rubble. Rescue teams tried to save Omayra, but she was so entrenched in debris up to her neck that there was no way to get her out without killing her. She survived for three days while people around her just watched and tried to comfort her. She finally succumbed to gangrene and hypothermia on November 16, but not until after the world had learned of her plight. Omayra was just one of 23,000 victims of the Mount Ruiz eruption.