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15 of the Worlds Most Destructive Volcanoes

Updated on January 6, 2013

Volcanology 101

Volcanoes are among the most destructive natural disasters that occur on our planet. However, you may be wondering how we can rank them. The answer is simple. Their destructive power can be compared against one another based on what is known as the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

The VEI was created in 1982 by Chris Newhall of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Stephen Self of the University of Hawaii. The Volcanic Explosivity Index provides a measure of the explosivity of an eruption. As such, it is the primary method used by volcanologists to estimate the relative size and power of an explosive volcanic eruption.

The VEI incorporates several factors to arrive at a final index value (from 0 to 8), including the volume of ejected material, the height of the eruption column, and the duration of the eruption in hours. Like the Richter scale, it is a logarithmic (or base-10) scale. This means each whole number increase corresponds to around a ten-fold increase in the explosivity of a given eruption.

In the last 12,000 years, known as the Holocene period, there have only been only four eruptions with VEIs of 7 (Santorini, Kikai, Crater Lake and Kurile Lake) and none that achieved the power of a VEI-8 eruption. All known super eruptions (VEI-8s) occurred in the Pleistocene period (2.6 million to 12,000 years ago) or earlier.

What follows is a listing of 15 of the most destructive volcanoes in history.

Comparing the Power of Volcanoes

Comparing the Power of Volcanoes
Comparing the Power of Volcanoes
Deccan Traps (Source: Public Domain)
Deccan Traps (Source: Public Domain)

#1 - The Deccan Traps

Pre-Pleistocene Eruption

The Deccan Traps are a set of lava beds covering 200,000 square miles of present-day India, now known as the Deccan Plateau. Created by a series of eruptions between 63 and 67 million years ago, the original size of the lava beds may have exceeded 500,000 square miles. This volcanic event occurred around the time that marks the disappearance of the dinosaurs, known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, and has been theorized as a possible cause, or at least a contributing factor. This eruption ranks number one on our list of most destructive volcanoes not because of its explosivity, which was low as a basalt lava event, but because of its sheer magnitude, the enormous amount of gases pumped into the atmosphere, and its impact on life on our planet.

Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia fills the massive Toba caldera (Source: USGS, A.M. & K.D. Hollitzer)
Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia fills the massive Toba caldera (Source: USGS, A.M. & K.D. Hollitzer)

#2 - Toba Supervolcano

Pleistocene Eruption

Toba, located in modern-day Indonesia, erupted around 74,000 years ago. Toba ejected approximately 2,797 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, leaving behind Lake Toba -- the largest volcanic lake in the world. The eruption of Toba, a Pleistocene eruption, represents the largest known eruption on Earth during the last 2.6 million years, a period known as quaternary period. Over six million tons of sulfur dioxide was pumped into the atmosphere, leading to a five degree Fahrenheit drop in global temperatures. Rated as an eight on the VEI, Toba is the only caldera super volcano that is larger than Yellowstone. This eruption was almost three times larger than the last Yellowstone eruption, and over 12 percent larger than Yellowstone's largest eruption.

Yellowstone Caldera (Source: National Park Service)
Yellowstone Caldera (Source: National Park Service)

#3 - Yellowstone Supervolcano

Pleistocene Eruption

The Yellowstone supervolcano, located in northwest Wyoming, has erupted three times, each rated as an eight on the VEI. Approximately 2.1 million years ago, the volcano ejected around 2,450 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, forming the Island Park Caldera. Approximately 1.3 million years ago, the volcano ejected nearly 291 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, forming Henry's Ford Caldera. Approximately 640,000 years ago, the volcano ejected around 1,042 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, forming the Yellowstone Caldera.

To put the size and scope of the Yellowstone eruptions into perspective, the crater atop Mount St. Helens is two square miles, while the Yellowstone caldera is 1,500 square miles. During the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens ejected 1.4 billion cubic yards of pyroclastic material, while the most recent Yellowstone eruption (640,000 years ago) ejected 8,000 times this amount, and the largest Yellowstone eruption (2.1 million years ago) ejected nearly 20,000 times as much material.

Long Valley Caldera, California (Source: USGS, Roy A. Bailey)
Long Valley Caldera, California (Source: USGS, Roy A. Bailey)

#4 - Long Valley Supervolcano

Pleistocene Eruption

The Long Valley Caldera in western California is the site of a massive super eruption that occurred around 720,000 years ago that rivaled the size of the third Yellowstone eruption. The blast, rated as an eight on the VEI, ejected around 625 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material. For more on this eruption, read my article Long Valley Caldera: Is this California Supervolcano a Ticking Doomsday Time-Bomb?

Taupo Caldera (Credit: NASA, Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center)
Taupo Caldera (Credit: NASA, Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center)

#5 - Taupo Supervolcano

Pleistocene & Holocene Eruptions

The Taupo Caldera, located in New Zealand, was formed by a massive super eruption around 27,000 years ago (known as the Oruanui Eruption) during the late Pleistocene period and again around 1,800 years ago (known as the Taupo Eruption). It continues to be one of the most active rhyolite calderas in the world. The Oruanui Eruption, a VEI-8 that ejected around 430 cubic kilometers of material, was the largest volcanic eruption since Toba super eruption. The Taupo Eruption was one of the two most violent eruptions known in the world during the last 5000 years, ejecting nearly cubic kilometers of material, and is considered to be one of the world's largest Holocene eruptions.

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Kurile Lake Caldera (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Kurile Lake Caldera (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#6 - Kurile Lake

Holocene Eruption

The Taupo Caldera, located in New Zealand, was formed by a massive super eruption around 27,000 years ago (known as the Oruanui Eruption) during the late Pleistocene period and again around 1,800 years ago (known as the Taupo Eruption). It continues to be one of the most active rhyolite calderas in the world. The Oruanui Eruption, a VEI-8 that ejected around 430 cubic kilometers of material, was the largest volcanic eruption since Toba super eruption. The Taupo Eruption was one of the two most violent eruptions known in the world during the last 5000 years, ejecting nearly cubic kilometers of material, and is considered to be one of the world's largest Holocene eruptions.

Tambora filmed from space by the NASA Expedition 20 crew (Sourse: NASA)
Tambora filmed from space by the NASA Expedition 20 crew (Sourse: NASA)

#7 - Mount Tambora

Holocene Eruption

Mount Tambora, located in Indonesia, erupted in 1815. The eruption ejected 150 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material nearly 30 miles into the atmosphere. Tambora, rated as a seven on the VEI, is the largest explosive eruption ever recorded. The explosion, a thousand times more powerful than Mt. Vesuvius, was heard over 1,200 miles away. The eruption released anywhere from 200 to 400 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the following year to be known as the "year without a summer." The eruption was responsible for 92,000 deaths, including 82,000 from starvation.

Crater Lake (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Crater Lake (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#8 - Crater Lake

Holocene Eruption

The Crater Lake caldera, which lies in the southern Cascades of Oregon, was produced by one of only four VEI-7 eruptions during the present Holocene period. The super eruption occurred around 5677 BC and ejected 150 cubic kilometers of material. The resulting caldera produced what is now Crater Lake -- the second deepest lake in all of North America (600 meters).

Kikai Caldera (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Kikai Caldera (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#9 - Kikai

Holocene Eruption

The Kikai caldera, which is located at the northern end of the Ryukyu Islands, was produced by one of only four VEI-7 super eruptions during the present Holocene period. The exact date of the eruption is unknown; however, it is estimated to have happened around 4350 BC. The massive blast ejected 150 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material. The volcano has continued to have minor eruptions (VEIs of between 1 and 3) ever since, the latest ending in 2004.

Santorini (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Santorini (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#10 - Santorini

Holocene Eruption

The eruption on the Island of Santorini in the Mediterranean occurred around 1610 BC and was one of only four level seven eruptions during the present Holocene period, the largest known eruption in recorded history and possibly the largest explosion ever witnessed by human beings. The eruption ejected 100 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material and destroyed the Minoan civilization. The force of the explosion was comparable to several hundred atomic bombs, all detonated within a fraction of a second.

Krakatau (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Krakatau (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#11 - Krakatau

Holocene Eruption

Located in the Sundra Strait of Indonesia, Krakatau erupted in 1883. The eruption, rated as a six on the VEI, ejected 20 cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material and produced tsunamis that reached 140 feet. The island was completely destroyed, with approximately 34,000 lives lost. Krakatau was located in the subduction zone of the Indo-Australian plate. The volcano erupted again in 1927, forming the Anak Krakatau cone, which means child of Krakatau.

Incredible Volcano Read

Novarupta Volcano (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Novarupta Volcano (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#12 - Novarupta

Holocene Eruption

Novarupta, located on the Alaska Peninsula, erupted in 1912. Novarupta ejected twelve cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material into the atmosphere. This eruption was rated as a six on the VEI and is considered the second largest blast of the 20th century. Novarupta is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Mount Pinatuba (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Mount Pinatuba (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#13 - Mount Pinatuba

Holocene Eruption

Mount Pinatuba, located in the Philippines, erupted in 1991. Rated as a six on the VEI, the stratovolcano ejected just over four cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, 22 miles into the atmosphere. The 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide caused a 1 degree Fahrenheit drop in global temperatures over the next year.

Laki Volcano (Credit: USGS)
Laki Volcano (Credit: USGS)

#14 - Laki Volcano

Holocene Eruption

Laki, located in Iceland, erupted in 1783. The eruption, rated as a six on the VEI, produced a famine that resulted in the death of one-third of the island's population. Poisonous gases from the eruption also killed many in the British Isles as it was blown eastward. The gases which were pumped into the atmosphere from this eruption resulted in a measurable drop in global temperatures. The Laki eruption produced the largest lava flow in recorded history. The 12 cubic kilometers of basalt lava flowed from a chain of craters, covering over 200 square miles.

Mount Vesuvius (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)
Mount Vesuvius (Fair Use Source: Smithsonian)

#15 - Mount Vesuvius

Holocene Eruption

Though there have been over 39 volcanic eruptions in the last 10,000 that are rated as 6s on the VEI, no list of destructive volcanoes would be complete without including Mount Vesuvius. Mount Vesuvius, located near Naples, Italy, erupted in AD 79. The eruption, ranked at approximately a five on the VEI, ejected around four cubic kilometers of pyroclastic material, killed thousands and buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Vesuvius last erupted in 1944 and is considered by some volcanologists to be the most dangerous volcano in the world today.

Mount St. Helens Erupts (VEI-5) - May 18, 1980, at 8:32 am PDT

This is an example of the explosive power of just a VEI-5 volcano. Mount St. Helens was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. An VEI-8 eruption by a supervolcano -- like Yellowstone or http://www.squidoo.com/long-valley-caldera-is-this-california-supervolcano-a-ticking-doomsday-time-bomb">Long Valley -- would be 1,000 time more powerful than this one!

Mount St. Helens Eruption II - Another Great Video

Mount St. Helens Eruption III - One Last Video Worth Watching

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