What Were The Worst Volcanic Eruptions In History?

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First Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano began erupting, and now Guatemala’s aptly-named Fuego (“fuego” is Spanish for “fire”) is wreaking havoc on Central America. As the world contends with recent volcanic activity, the question we’ll now consider is, which volcanic eruptions have been the worst in history?

It Depends On What You Mean By “History”

History means different things to different people. After all, the Earth has been a thing four about 4 billion years, give or take. Similarly, humans have been writing things down for about six or seven thousand years, give or take – but reliable history only dates back a few centuries. So, for example, the Minoan Eruption of ~2,000 BCE, which may or may not have been the basis for Plato’s fictional Atlantis, was written about only after the fact – centuries after the fact.

So for the sake of this article, we’ll limit the discussion to those that have occurred since 1700 CE.

It Also Depends On What You Mean By “Worst”

Another issue is how you define “worst.” Are we talking about the number of people killed (and do we mean directly or indirectly?)? Or are we talking about simply the explosive magnitude?

Either Way, The Clear Winner Is Tambora In 1815

The Indonesian volcano ejected so much detritus into the atmosphere that global temperatures cooled by an estimated 0.4 degrees Celsius, according to Sage Journals. That may seem like a trifling temperature change, but when all of the dust had settled, so to speak, an estimated 71,000 people had lost their lives, either due to the volcano itself or to worldwide famines caused by crop failures resulting from the temperature changes. In North America and Western Europe, so cold were the temperatures that some deemed 1816 “The Year Without A Summer.”

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Followed By Krakatoa In 1885

Estimating the impact and severity of volcanic eruptions centuries ago is, of course, a game of speculation. But the next-worst, after Tambora, is likely Krakatoa (alternately spelled Krakatau) in 1885. Like Tambora, the death toll considers not only those killed directly by the eruption but those killed by its indirect effects (a tsunami and, again, worldwide crop failures). According to Live Science, the eruption is believed to have led to 36,000 deaths.

Moving Down The List

Those two mega-eruptions are followed by Mount Pelée in Martinique in 1902 (an estimated 30,000 deaths); Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985 (an estimated 23,000 deaths); Mount Unzen in Japan in 1792 15,000 deaths; and Grímsvötn in Iceland in 1783 (10,000 deaths, largely due to famine across Europe).

Any Volcano-Related Deaths In The United States?

Yes, actually. When Washington’s Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, it killed between 50 and 60 people depending on whom you ask (the death toll is disputed due to a couple of technicalities). As of this writing, the 1980 eruption remains the only fatal volcanic eruption in United States history.