A volcano is simply an opening or rupture in the earth’s surface that allows magma (hot liquid and semi-liquid rock), volcanic ashes, and gases to escape. They are generally found where tectonic plates either come together or separate, deep below the surface of the earth, but they can also be in the middle of such plates due to volcanic hotspots. Noteworthy is the fact that similar to the Richter scale for earthquakes, the size of a volcanic eruption is measured using the Volcanic Explosive Index (VEI). This VEI ranks Volcanic explosions from 1 to 8, ranging from a minimal outpouring of lava to super-sized explosions. Therefore, from an eruption’s magnitude to its death toll, to its economic cost, the impact of a volcanic explosion can be enormous. So, putting these and other factors into consideration, we present to you, the deadliest volcanic eruptions history has ever recorded based on their respective VEI:
Nyiragongo is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world because if it’s particularly fast-moving lava that can flow at a speed of about 100km per hour. On 17th January 2002, after months of increased seismic activity, a 13km fissure opened in the south flank of the volcano, spreading in a few hours and spilling lava to the outskirts of the city of Goma, the provincial capital, directly causing its wake, the death of 30 people when more than 500 houses were flattened by the lava flow, and eventually reaching lake Kivu, where it raised concerns that the lava might cause gas-saturated waters deep in the lake to rise to the surface, releasing lethally large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. This, however, did not happen but about 245 people died in the eruption from asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and buildings collapsing due to lava and earthquakes, with lava covering 13 percent of Goma, and nearly 120,000 left homeless.
The explosion of Mt. Unzen in 1792 remains Japan’s deadliest volcanic eruption, beginning with an earthquake in November of the previous year. On March 25, an explosion collapsed the dome of the volcano unexpectedly, following a post-eruption earthquake, creating a massive landslide that buried the city of shimbara and made for Ariake bay, into the ocean, causing a mega-tsunami that reached a height of 100 meters, the catastrophe killing an estimated 15,000 people, with the cost of damages to both agriculture and fish facilities reaching an estimated 17.4 billion yen (roughly $150 million).
Despite its relatively medium eruption, the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz had overwhelmingly devastating effects. Beginning November 1984, geologists observed an increasing level of seismic activity near Nevado del Ruiz, which has often been a precursor of an upcoming eruption. At exactly 3:06 pm, on November 13, 1985, Nevado del Ruiz began to erupt. The eruption created pyroclastic mudflows that raced down the volcanoes flanks, at speeds of 60 km per hour, dislodging rock, eroding soil, and destroying vegetation, with the notable obliteration of the town of Armero in Tolima, out of which only one-quarter of its 28,700 inhabitants survived, and also the destruction of about 400 homes and loss of about 1,800 lives in the town of Chinchiná, in the department of Caldas. In total, over 23,000 deaths were recorded, approximately 5,000 injured, and more than 5,000 homes destroyed in the aftermath. The Nevado del Ruiz eruption is said to have cost an estimated $1 billion.
4. Mt. Pelee, Caribbean, 1902 (VEI4)
Mt. Pelée remained relatively quiet until the afternoon of 5th May 1902, when as a result of previously occurring explosions depicting volcanic activity, a mudflow swept down the southwest flank of the volcano into a river burying 150 people and generating a series of 3 tsunamis as it hit the sea, proceeding thereafter to destroying buildings and boats as it swept through the coast. The explosions continued through the following days till 8 am, on 8 May when a tremendous explosion occurred which shattered a part of the volcano, sending down a huge sea of lava particles, suspended by searing turbulent gases at hurricane speed, reaching the city of Saint-Pierre at exactly 8:02 am. Escape from the city this impossible, a whopping total of 28,000 perished–died, buried by falling debris, or scorched, as the hot ash ignited a huge firestorm, fueled by smashed buildings and countless casks of rum. Only 2 people survived within the city, with tens of other survivors found within the city outskirts badly burned. The cost of the eruption was estimated at roughly $50million.
5. Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, 79 AD (VEI5)
In the late summer of 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius violently spewed a deadly cloud of superheated tephra and gases to a height of 33 km, ejecting molten rock, pulverized pumice, and hot ash at 1.5 million tons per second, ultimately releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, the region was a part of the Roman Empire, and several roman cities were obliterated and buried underneath massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits. On 24 August, Vesuvius erupted ash, mud, and toxic gases, completely burying nearby cities, the best known being the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The total population of both cities was over 20,000. It took until the year 1595 for the cities to be excavated and rediscovered, with the remains of over 1,500 people having been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum so far, although the total death toll from the eruption remains unknown. If the same eruption occurred today it would cost billions of dollars.
6. Krakatoa, Indonesia, 1883 (VEI6)
The eruption was one of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic events in recorded history and explosions were so violent that they were heard 3,110 km away in Perth, Western Australia, and 4800 km away in Rodrigues near Mauritius. On the morning of 27 August, a series of massive eruptions tore the volcano’s walls apart. Krakatoa’s final eruption was four times more powerful than the largest bomb that humans have detonated. It produced a series of tsunamis that devastated the region, killing around 36,417 people and destroying whole villages. Some have estimated the cost of the eruption to be as high as $1.5 billion. The sound from the explosions was claimed to be heard in 50 different locations around the world and the sound wave is recorded to have traveled the globe seven times over (beat that).
7. Mt Tambora, Indonesia, 1815 (VEI 7)
Tambora’s 1815 eruption was the largest in recorded human history and the largest of the Holocene (10,000 years ago to present). On 10 April 1815, Tambora erupted, sending volcanic ash 40km into the sky. It had 4–10 times the energy of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. Upon entering the ocean, the force of the pyroclastic flow caused the creation of a series of towering tsunamis. Thanks to the enormous amount of SO₂ emitted, the world experienced a severe temperature drop that led to global crop failures. Thousands starved to death in China while typhus stretched across Europe. The eruption contributed to global climate anomalies in the following years, while 1816 became known as the “year without a summer” because of the impact on North American and European weather. In the Northern Hemisphere, crops failed and livestock died, resulting in the worst famine of the century. Tambora caused enough starvation and disease to kill approximately 80,000 people.
8. Oruanui Eruption, About 26,500 BCE (VEI8)
The Oruanui eruption of New Zealand’s Taupo Volcano was the world’s most recent supereruption and the world’s largest known eruption in the past 70,000 years, which had a Volcanic Explosive Index of 8. It is one of the largest eruptions in the history of New Zealand. It occurred at about 26,500 BCE in the Late Pleistocene era, forming lake Taupo. Luckily for Mankind, no VEI-8 eruption has occurred in recent human history as such an eruption is bound to have annihilating long-term effects on the surrounding area(s) and devastating short-term effects on global climate, leaving profound effects on the climate for years to come.
Be it as it may, the question on humanity’s lips has always been, considering the various categories of eruptions ever witnessed, what are the possibilities of a VEI-9 category-ish eruption happening? What are the consequent impacts, what effects does it pose for Man, will man’s activities directly or indirectly cause such an eruption to occur? These and more should be borne in mind by environmentalists and policymakers because all we have Is just one planet, and we all should aspire to protect and maintain it, not just for us, but for the generations yet unborn.