It is rare that we throw around the word “catastrophic” when it comes to volcano eruptions all time. However, the eruption at Mount Samalas in 1257 CE was certainly just that. The Indonesian volcano managed to reach a level 7 on the VEI scale, making it one of the most violent eruptions of the Holocene. Today, we know the damage it did through its large caldera alone. It now serves as Lake Segara Anak. The eruption itself created eruption columns that reached several miles into the atmosphere. Most of Lombok Island was buried in pyroclastic flows.
It was so massive that this eruption did not just impact Lombok but also the neighboring island of Sumbawa. Most human settlements in the territory were destroyed, including Lombok’s entire capital city, Pamatan. Ash from the eruption went as far as 210 miles away. What was worse was that aerosols managed to get into the atmosphere and reduced solar radiation that could reach the Earth. This resulted in a volcanic winter event, cooling the entire territory for several years. It is thought that this volcano contributed to the Little Ice Age event that lasted for centuries.
Location:Ōsumi Islands of Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan
Also known as the Akahoya eruption, the Kikai Caldera was one of the largest eruptions in the Holocene. Unlike other volcanoes on this list, you likely cannot see the Kikai Caldera very well today as it is mostly submerged. It happens to be around 12 miles in diameter and does not operate as a lake due to the ocean submerging it underwater. Estimated to have erupted in 4300 BCE, pyroclastic flows reached the coast of what is now southern Kyūshū, roughly 62 miles away from the volcano itself. Ash even fell as far as Hokkaidō. Volcano eruptions that send ash flying like this can do major damage.
Rated a 7 on the VEI scale, at least 270 miles of tephra was produced from this eruption. This put it alongside other major volcanic eruptions in history, especially the Holocene. However, what makes Kikai so freaky is that it is still an active volcano to this day. In fact, as recently as June 2013, weak tremors were recorded and eruptions began off and on right after for several hours. Of course, none of these eruptions were considered significant like the one from over 6,000 years ago. Yet the fact that they happened at all is worthy of fear.
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo is one of the few major eruptions to take place within most of our lifetimes. While this volcano might be found in the Philippines, the eruption at Pinatubo was felt worldwide. We know today that the eruption was the second largest in the 20th century too. You’d be forgiven if you thought the end of the world was near. As this eruption was taking place, Typhoon Yunya threw a monkey wrench into everything. This brought a lethal level of ash and rain into cities surrounding the volcano. It resulted in tens of thousands of people evacuating the territory. Thousands of lives were saved through this, but 350 people died.
Nearby territories were severely damaged from the pyroclastic surges and falls. The flooding lahars caused by rainwater only helped to remobilize earlier volcanic deposits. River systems were massively damaged due to this for several years as a result. Roughly 10 billion metric tons of magma and 20 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide came out of this eruption, which brought toxic metals and minerals into the surface environment and into the stratosphere. For months, aerosols formed a global layer of sulfuric acid haze, and temperatures dropped worldwide by at least a degree Fahrenheit from 1991 to 1993. Along with heavy ozone depletion.
It is likely that when we think of something “huge,” we often hear the word “Krakatoa.” That is for a legitimate reason. In 1883, an eruption took place at the Krakatoa Caldera in the Sunda Strait. This is located in Indonesia between the islands of Java and Sumatra, within the province of Lampung. The overall caldera is part of a volcanic island group that comprises four islands. While the Lang and Verlaten islands were remnants of previous eruptions before 1883, Rakata happens to be the remnant of a much larger island that the 1883 eruption destroyed. People knew before 1883 that Krakatoa was a huge problem.
Seismic activity was intense for many years. Finally, in May 1883 a few lesser eruptions took place but soon after, the volcano began to release huge plumes of steam and ash that lasted until August. By late August, a series of four explosions nearly destroyed the island itself. The explosions were so loud that people in Perth, Australia could hear them. They are roughly 3,000 miles away! Anyone within 10 miles of the eruption would have gone deaf. Roughly 260,000 feet of ash came out, followed by volcanic ash and tsunamis as well as temperature drops. The Dutch managed to count at least 36,417 confirmed deaths but many feel the real total is closer to over 120,000.
The Lakigigar volcano is actually a fissure, and is often referred to as the “Laki Fissure.” From June 1783 to February 1784, Laki erupted violently and was joined by the nearby Grímsvötn volcano soon into its eruption. In total, 42 billion metric tons of basalt lava and clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulfur dioxide contaminated not only the soil but a lot of the breathable air. At least 50% of all Icelandic livestock died from the event, and soon after, most of the crops in Iceland were destroyed entirely. The land remained so contaminated from this that crops could not be grown in the territory for many years after.
Of course, this led to a mass famine that would go on to kill around 25% of the human population in Iceland at the time. This would have been between 9,000 to 9,350 people in that time period. While the aftermath for Icelantic soil and its atmosphere was poor, the world felt this too. Global temperatures dropped due to the 120 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide that flowed into the Northern Hemisphere. European crops were impacted by this drastically, and both Northern Africa and India experienced major droughts due to this too. Volcano eruptions like what we saw with Laki was on the tip of the iceberg for Iceland, sadly.
Iceland was not the only nation to experience a major eruption in the late 1700s. In fact, Mount Unzen’s eruption just a few years later was Japan’s deadliest volcano in its long history. The eruption led to a mass explosion that collapsed the dome of the volcano itself. That resulted in a giant landslide that buried the entire city of Shimabara before flowing into the ocean. While some might feel the loss of the city was bad enough for this to be a horrific eruption, this was just where Mount Unzen’s eruption and its aftermath began. Many volcano eruptions never went with just the eruption itself.
The eruption and its landslide triggered a tsunami that ended up being over 50 feet high. All in all, the event led to the death of an estimated 15,000 people. Of course, to the shock of no one, agriculture in the region was impacted heavily. The fish population in the region naturally decreased too, putting many fishermen who survived this event out of work for a while. The cost of the damages at that time was around 17.4 billion yen, which is about $150 million. If we account for inflation in 2022, that same level of impact would be nearly $5 billion dollars worth of damage.
While this stratovolcano has erupted several times, the eruption in May 1980 is the deadliest and most destructive in U.S. history. The eruption resulted in a major debris avalanche, which triggered a 5.1-level earthquake that did destruction on its own. The mountain’s summit even reduced a lot. It was as high as 9,677 feet but the eruption cut it down to 8,363 feet. It even left behind a one-mile crater shaped like a horseshoe. Ecosystems near the volcano were devasted by the eruption, which seems obvious but the ash actually helped nearby aquatic ecosystems tremendously.
The eruption leveled a lot of things before the earthquake and other events took place. Around 200 homes, 47 bridges, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railway were destroyed. This resulted in the loss of 57 human lives as well. Economically, this event resulted in several millions of dollars worth of repairs. Interestingly, the volcano still remains active and has experienced volcanic activity consistently since 2008. Yet Mount St. Helens remained one of the most popular hiking spots in the United States and it is climbed all year long by both residents and visitors. Apparently, possible volcano eruptions do not scare these people away!
The Nevado del Ruiz volcano has had some massive eruptions over the years, but likely the most notable occurred in 1985. In November, it only took a small eruption to do an enormous amount of damage. Essentially, the volcano did not need a major eruption because it was capable of producing a ton of mudflows without much effort. That is likely due to the local glaciers. In fact, this is essentially what led to a massive loss of life in the local area. Now known as the Armero tragedy, the town of Armero in Tolima was hit by the aforementioned mudflow.
The result of this was that the entire town was destroyed. Sadly, an estimated total of 25,000 people died during the event. It is the deadliest eruption in Columbian history and among the deadliest in South American history today. The volcano is actually part of the Los Nevados National Park where visitors drop by throughout the year. It seems that many did not learn their lesson about building near Nevado del Ruiz as there are many villages and towns close by. Now covered by large glaciers, if it were to go off, it could impact or kill up to 500,000 people from the mudflow potential alone.
Mount Tambora has experienced some major eruptions in its long history. However, in 1815 it managed to be so destructive that it ended more human lives than perhaps any other volcano directly in history. Today, we also know it to be the most powerful volcanic eruption since humans have been on the planet. Rated a 7 by the Volcanic Explosivity Index, it sent around 38 to 51 cubic miles of volcanic material into the atmosphere. Going into April 1815, the magma chamber had been drained by previous eruptions. This allowed the volcano to essentially become dormant…but it was refilling that entire time.
Suddenly, an explosive eruption took place that could be heard as far as Sumatra Island 1,200 miles away. Heavy volcanic ash rained down and could be seen by all nearby islands within hundreds of miles. The direct eruption was estimated to have killed around 71,000 people. However, due to its impact on the global climate, 1816 became the “year without a summer.” North American and European temperatures and weather led to the death of livestock and crops. That led to an enormous famine, which was the worst of the century. Thus, you could say hundreds of thousands were impacted and any of their deaths were due to the eruption too.
Perhaps the most famous of all volcanic eruptions in history is the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This is most certainly due to its location and the historians that were either present or close to the event. Everyone knows that the Roman city of Pompeii was leveled by the eruption. Later archeologists would uncover a lot of major Roman artifacts from the location that were all in pristine condition due to the eruption. However, Pompeii was only one of the cities impacted. Herculaneum, Oplontis, and Stabiae among other settlements were all leveled too.
The eruption sent out a cloud of stones, ashes, and volcanic gases as far as 21 miles. This includes erupting molten rock and pulverizing pumice hundreds of miles per hour. At least 1,000 people died in the eruption, but it is widely assumed many more lost their lives. The only surviving eyewitness account actually comes from historian Pliny the Elder’s nephew and Roman Magistrate Pliny the Younger, as well as Tacitus. Vesuvius has erupted many more times since 79 CE, but this will forever be the most notable eruption. Volcano eruptions do not get more infamous than Vesuvius.