Volcanoes are one of the most awe-inspiring forces of nature, exhibiting a power unmatched by anything mankind has created. They have a violent history of not only destroying cities but also of affecting global climate and forever altering the geography of the Earth.
Possibly the most well-known volcanic eruption in history is Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. Much of what is known about the eruption comes from the testimony of a Roman poet by the name of Pliny the Younger, who observed it along with his uncle, Pliny the Elder. The volcanic cloud, which exploded with 100,000 times the energy of the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was described by the two men as resembling a tree. The pyroclastic flow rushed down the side of the mountain, engulfing everything in its path. The total death toll was estimated at 13,000 and Pompeii, as well as two neighboring cities of Stabiae and Herculaneum, were buried. Pompeii was uncovered in 1748 by archaeologists, who discovered everything, including the human remains, frozen in place exactly as it had been at the time of the eruption, due to a plaster created by the mixture of rain and ash. The 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius was responsible for the naming of the specific type of eruption called Vesuvian eruptions (also known as Plinian eruptions).
Nevado del Ruiz, 1985
The Nevado del Ruiz is a stratovolcano in Tolima, Columbia which erupted on November 13, 1985, is an event known as the Armero tragedy. The pyroclastic flow from the eruption melted glaciers, creating lahars (mudslides mixed with volcanic debris) which swallowed the town of Armero. The total death toll was 23,000, with more than 20,000 of those being inhabitants of Armero. The disaster stirred up controversy due to the Columbians ignoring several warnings of volcanic activity from vulcanological organizations. Local officials did begin to make evacuation plans in September of 1985, creating a hazard map to indicate which areas were most at risk. However, poor distribution of the map as well as a severe storm which hampered communication resulted in many inhabitants being unaware of the danger.
Mount Pelee 1902
This photo of Mount Pelee shows a lush green mountain as a remarkable backdrop to the city of St. Pierre in Martinique. But on May 8, 1902, after two weeks of volcanic activity, that beautiful mountain emitted a pyroclastic surge which demolished the city. According to legend, there were only two survivors in St. Pierre: Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who was locked in an underground jail cell, and Léon Compère-Léandre, who lived on the outskirts of the city. There were, in fact, several survivors; however, the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee is still known as the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, resulting in 29,000 deaths. While the city of St. Pierre was rebuilt and still exists today, it has never returned to its pre-1902 status as the largest city in Martinique.
This image of Krakatoa spewing fire into the night sky may be a beautiful site, but the aftermath of the eruption was far from beautiful. The island of Krakatoa once had three volcanic peaks: Perboewatan, Danan, and Rakata. The eruption began in May of 1883 and culminated in four massive explosions on August 27 which caused Perboewatan and Danan to sink into an underwater caldera. The pyroclastic flows, as well as the ash and tsunamis spawned by the eruption, caused a death toll exceeding 36,000. In addition to changing the geography of the Earth, the eruption caused erratic weather patterns, including lower summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere as well as record rainfall, for the next five years.
Mount Tambora 1815
The largest observed eruption in recorded history was on the island of Sumbawa in what is now Indonesia. The eruption of Mount Tambora began on April 5, 1815 and reached its climax on April 10. The resulting pyroclastic flow destroyed the village of Tambora. Smoke continued to emit from the mountain peak well into August of 1815, but flames and aftershocks continued for four years. The volcano was also responsible for a tsunami which struck several neighboring islands on April 10, 1815. While the exact death toll is disputed, it is estimated that the eruption caused as many as 100,000 direct (resulting from the pyroclastic flow) and indirect (resulting from starvation and disease) deaths. However, these numbers do not take into account the devastating effects of the 1816 “Year Without a Summer,” thought to be primarily a volcanic winter resulting from the eruption of Mount Tambora, during which global temperatures dropped as much as 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, causing hundreds of thousands of famine-related deaths throughout the world.
Despite the many scientific advances mankind has made over the centuries, we are still powerless in the face of these deadly occurrences. We may have gotten better at predicting when the volcanoes will erupt, but that foreknowledge just gives us the chance to get out of the way and let nature do its thing.