Volcanic activity has transformed the world, climate, and geography throughout ancient civilization. 

From Mount Pinatubo’s temperature dropping burp to the outburst of Mt. Tambora, one of the highest elevations in the Indonesian archipelago, humankind has seen some gigantic volcanism.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), a categorization system created in the 1980s, is similar to the magnitude scale for earthquakes and tremors and is used to calculate the extent of such volcanic eruptions. The ranking varies from 1 to 8, with each subsequent VEI ten times higher than the previous.

The geological and gravitational pull of the Earth requires volcanic activity. However, there have been several disastrous volcanic activities that have resulted in significant disasters worldwide.

Check out this list of ten most powerful volcanic eruptions that humanity has ever witnessed in the piece below. These natural hazards have killed and caused devastation to humankind and property.

Table of Contents

1. Mt Tambora

The active volcano of mount Tambora
The active volcano of mount Tambora | Image Credit – Flickr
Recorded deaths92,000
Major cause of deathStarvation

Mount Tambora’s eruption is the greatest ever documented by humanity, with a score of 7 (or “super-colossal”) on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the indication’s second-highest rank. The active volcano is one of the highest points in the Indonesian archipelago.

Tambora, like Krakatoa, is found in modern-day Indonesia. In 1813, it started to show indications of the outbreak, finally ending in a massive explosion in 1815. 

Approximately 160 cubic kilometers of rubble were blasted into the sky due to the event. That is enough dust to completely cover the island of Manhattan in a mile-and-a-half blanket of dirt.

The outburst peaked in April 1815, when it erupted with such force that it was audible more than 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) distant on Sumatra Island. 

The eruption claimed the lives of 71,000 people, and masses of thick ash blanketed several far-flung islands.

The explosion caused a three-degree drop in world temperatures, culminating in the “year without summer.” As the debris blacked out the sun, international food crises developed. 

Brown and red snowfall blanketed the planet that winter, and the brutal wintery mix of 1815 inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein.

2. Krakatoa, Indonesia

Volcanic eruption in Krakatao
Volcanic eruption in Krakatao | Image Credit – Flickr
Recorded deaths36,417
Major cause of deathTsunami

The months leading up to the last outburst of Krakatoa in the warmer months of 1883 culminated in a massive blast on April 26-27. 

The stratovolcano’s exothermic reaction, which occurred along a volcanic arc in the Indo-Australian plate’s convergent boundary, expelled huge volumes of rubble, debris, and marble. The explosion was audible thousands of kilometers distant.

The eruption also triggered a tsunami, with a peak significant wave height of 140 feet (40 meters) and 34,000 deaths. 

The spike in wave heights was also detected by tidal sensors more than 7,000 miles (11,000 km) offshore on the Arabian Peninsula.

While the explosion utterly obliterated the landmass that originally housed Krakatoa, the Anak Krakatau (“Child of Krakatau”), a conical structure, was created in the heart of the depression created by the 1883 eruption commencing in December 1927. Anak Krakatau appears and disappears, leaving behind a new island in the shade of its progenitor.

3. Mt Pelee

Mt Pelee
Mt Pelee | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons
Recorded deaths29,025
Major cause of deathAsh flows

Mount Pelée, a stratovolcano on the territory of Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, erupted violently on May 8, 1902. 

While only 0.24 cubic miles of molten material emerged, most of it produced high-velocity basaltic lava that raced down a steep slope to the Saint-Pierre port. Within several minutes, the volcano completely destroyed the neighborhood and nearly all its residents.

4. Nevado del Ruiz

Nevado del Ruiz
Nevado del Ruiz | Image Credit – Flickr
Recorded deaths25,000
Major cause of deathMudflows

On November 13, 1985, a relatively insignificant outburst of Mount Ruiz, a stratovolcano in Colombia’s Andes Mountains, claimed the lives of 25,000 people, making it the second greatest volcanic catastrophe of the twentieth century. 

At an altitude of 5,400 meters (17,700 feet), Mount Vesuvius is lofty enough to contain a glacial ice cover. 

A quick flood of surface water pushed large mudflows through valleys on both the east and west sides of the volcano. 

The volcanic activity spilled several million cubic meters of hot pyroclastic debris onto the ice encircling the crown crater. 

The mudflows submerged much of Armero, which was situated on a low plain next to the Lagunilla River 50 kilometers (30 miles) east and approximately 5 kilometers (3 miles) underneath the peak of Ruiz. A total of twenty-two thousand people were slain in the town during the disaster.

5. Mt Unzen

The Mount Unzen Disaster | Video Credit – Zacinator
Recorded deaths15,000
Major cause of deathVolcano collapse, tsunami

Mt. Unzen’s outburst remains as Japan’s deadliest volcanic eruption in history. The explosion caused the volcano’s crown to crumble, resulting in a large avalanche engulfing Shimabara and spilling into the sea, causing a 57-meter-high tsunami. 

Around 15,000 individuals were killed in the disaster. The analyst predicted liability to agribusiness and fisheries operations to cost 17.4 billion yen ($150 million).

6. Laki

Laki | Image Credit – Flickr
Recorded deaths9,350
Major cause of deathStarvation

The impact of the Laki eruption was realized and relieved around the world for years after it happened. 

The explosion at Laki spanned eight months and ejected 14.7km3 of molten matter. Noxious fumes devastated Iceland’s harvests, slaughtered 60% of the country’s grazing animals, and emitted enough sulfur dioxide to produce acid rain and reduce world temperatures.

Famine followed the volcanic eruption, killing about 10,000 Icelanders, roughly a fourth of the country’s national population. 

Laki’s poisonous outpour killed 23,000 people in Britain and created mass starvation in Egypt as it traveled south. 

According to some environmental scholars, the European starvation induced by the eruption may have been a factor for the French Revolution.

7. Kelut

The Aftermath of Keluts Eruption
The Aftermath of Keluts Eruption | Image Credit – Imaggeo
Recorded deaths5,110
Major cause of deathMudflows

The volcano Kelud on the Indonesian island of Java awoke on May 1, 1919, identifying itself as the twentieth century’s bloodiest strike of nature. The lake at the peak, about 5,000 feet above sea level, was evacuated by the explosion. 

Sediment and lava flow from the lake’s boiling waters surged across Kediri and Blitar’s farming districts. 

They proceeded up to 25 miles from the volcanic mountain, damaging 40,000 acres of agricultural land in the process. 

Around fifteen miles radius of the volcano, three million people resided, and far more than 5,000 civilians lost their lives on the day of the event. A thousand communities were razed to the ground. 

Kelud is a minor volcano in comparison to the others in Indonesia. Still, it has been the site of many of Indonesia’s catastrophic eruptions due to the presence of the lake at its top and the regularity with which it erupts.

8. Galunggung

Eruption of Mount Galunggung in the Year 1982 | Video Credit – YAN YAN ARIESANDI NUGRAHA
Recorded deaths4,011
Major cause of deathMudflows

The 1982-83 explosion of Galunggung in West Java showed Indonesia’s perennial volcanic-hazards dilemma of gigantic dimensions. 

Despite its small size, it wreaked widespread devastation and had significant implications on more than half a million population. 

Galunggung explosions have frequently caused significant damage: the first recorded outburst in 1822 resulted in pyroclastic flows and mudflows that killed approximately 4000 people. 

Its most recent powerful eruption, in 1982-1983, created massive pyroclastic flows that wreaked havoc on the surrounding populous regions.

9. Mt Vesuvius

Mt Vesuvius
Mt Vesuvius | Image Credit – Flickr
Year79 AD
Recorded deaths3,360
Major cause of deathAsh flows and falls

While not nearly on par with other significant eruptions, the legend accompanying Mount Vesuvius’ anger puts it in a class by itself. 

On August 24, 79 CE, the volcano erupted, converting the Roman settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum into timeless images of countless lives disrupted. 

Pompeii was famed for a lush territory that supplied orchards and wineries before it was engulfed in smoke. 

At the same time, Herculaneum was a vacation retreat for the Roman governing class before volcanic eruptions consumed it in cinders. Many people stayed behind when Vesuvius burst, trying to ride it out. 

However, a second explosion annihilated and vaporized the towns, burying them in mud and embers. 

In the 18th century, the cities started regaining, and scientific findings of Pompeii and Herculaneum’s final moments are still being produced.

10. Mount Pinatubo

Volcanic Ash Blows in the sky during the eruption of mount Pinatubo
Volcanic Ash Blows in the sky during the eruption of mount Pinatubo | Image Credit – Picrl
Recorded deaths1,335
Major cause of deathAsh flows

Mount Pinatubo, a recent massive supervolcano eruption with a VEI of 6, inflicted apocalyptic obliteration of a heavily populated region of Luzon in the Philippines on June 15, 1991. 

Pinatubo’s volatility peaked when a gas-powered eruption, comprising more than five cubic kilometers, was unleashed after a series of strong earthquakes and a torrent of magma rising 20 miles onto the crust of the Earth. 

At the bottom of the mountain, explosive eruptions of debris and pumice left sediments over 660 feet deep, while severe cyclones triggered massive mudslides. 

Thick layers of moist ash flattened buildings. Nevertheless, scientific forecasts allowed communities to be warned and relocated, saving thousands of innocent lives.

To Conclude

Around 70% of persons killed by volcanic eruptions in the last 200 years perished during the first four volcanic eruptions indicated above. 

The additional 30% lost their lives in various less-destructive volcanic outbursts. However, it is crucial to understand that as the global population grows, the probability of more deaths from volcanic activity increases.

(Last Updated on April 17, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Shradha Bhatta holds a Bachelors’s Degree in Social Work along with a Post-graduate degree in Project Management from Georgian College in Canada. Shradha enjoys writing on a variety of topics and takes pleasure in discovering new ideas. She likes traveling and spending time with nature. She is a very people-person who loves talking about climate change and alerting people to go green!