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Famous Volcanoes in History

Updated on January 6, 2015

Volcanic Eruptions That Shook the World

Volcanoes have caused major disruption and destruction throughout human history. We know their names, we marvel at the ruins and stories they've left behind, we rebuild on the ashes of our ancestors, and we reap the benefits of fertile volcanic soil.

Historical volcanic eruptions are fascinating. They're also important to remember and tell stories about. Otherwise, our children may forget the lessons of the past, and pay the price.

It's human nature to grow complacent about natural disasters that don't happen very often. We need to realize that when a mountain awakens, it's time to get out of the way, lest we ourselves become history.

Mount St. Helens, Washington State, US - The Eruptions of 1980, 2004


Mount St. Helens' May 18th, 1980 eruption made history, spreading ash up to 22,000 miles and causing massive destruction up to 19 miles away -- or farther, in places where its superheated mudflows flooded local rivers.

The explosion turned vast swaths of forest into a lifeless moonscape. Within the first few miles, nothing survived the heat, the blast wave, and flying chunks of pulverized mountainside, glaciers seared to steam, shattered trees flung like toothpicks. Farther out, the choking ash clouds could still cook, kill, burn, while hurricane-force winds blew down mile after mile of forests. Beyond that, the ash kept falling, and lahars — mudflows the consistency of liquid concrete, several hundred degrees — flooded rivers, bulldozed buildings and bridges on their banks, and swept people and animals away.

And that was a small eruption. Most of the volcanic eruptions listed on this page are larger.

But that's not the end of the story! From October 2004 to January 2008, Mount St. Helens rumbled to life again in a minor series of eruptions that created a new lava dome within the crater of the 1980 eruption. They didn't do any damage, but they remind us that Mt. St. Helens, or her nearby neighbors, could cause havoc in the Pacific Northwest at any time.

Mount St. Helens Links:

Mount St. Helens: From the Ashes

A 20th Anniversary retrospective by Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Good introduction.

Mt. St. Helens: Past, Present and Future

Detailed description of eruption with photos on CVO's Mt St. Helens 30th Anniversary website.

CVO's Mt. St Helens Page

Tons of information from Cascades Volcanoes Observatory, but a challenge to dig through.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

National Park website including volcano cams, with lots of visitors' information.

50 Photos of Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens photo collection by CVO.

Life and Lessons in Blast Zone: Mount St. Helens 30 Years Later

News article in The Olympian on Mount St. Helens and the gradual return of plants and animals to the blast zone.

Mount St. Helens Videos:

Ancient Roman Painting of Mt. Vesuvius
Buy at

Mount Vesuvius had been a picturesque mountain with vineyards on its sides and the sparkling Bay of Naples below (an ancient caldera) around which clustered an arc of posh resort towns. It had not erupted in 200 years, and the last upheaval its crater had been Spartacus' rebel army using Vesuvius as a fort. An earthquake in 62 was an ominous portent.

On August 24, 79 AD, the mountain exploded in a type of eruption later known as Plinian, after Pliny the Younger's description: "its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches." By the next day, the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and many others had been buried in ash or even more fatal, incinerating pyroclastic flows.

Vesuvius and Pompeii Links:

Eyewitness account of 79 AD Eruption

Translation of Pliny the Younger's letters detailing the eruption that buried Pompeii.

Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption is an informative, well-written guide put together by a Chicago museum displaying artifacts from several of the buried towns.

Pompeii: Unraveling Ancient Mysteries

Good website for students on Vesuvius, Herculanium and Pompeii.

History and Eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius

Summary of eruptions from Roman times to present.

Vesuvius Volcano Observatory

Current information on volcano. Also includes information on many eruptions before 79 AD.

Mount Vesuvius, Italy: Modern Danger

The threat to Naples and nearby towns.

Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii Videos:

Pompeii: The Last Day / Colosseum: A Gladiator's Story - BBC Dramatization / Documentary

Pompeii - The Last Day/Colosseum - A Gladiator's Story
Pompeii - The Last Day/Colosseum - A Gladiator's Story

The BBC's "Pompeii: The Last Day" is a bit melodramatic, but it is based on written and archaeological evidence. I can't find the Pompeii documentary by itself, but the gladiator documentary bundled with it looks interesting, and you can't beat the price.


Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Buy at

Try to imagine the 2004 Indonesian tsunami crossed with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens -- then make it bigger. Krakatoa's 1883 eruption was heard up to 4600km (2850 miles) away. It was also the first worldwide news event, as terrifying accounts of the disaster made their way around the globe via brand-new trans-oceanic telegraph cables.

Volcanic ash in the atmosphere caused dramatic sunsets for several years. Edvard Munch's "The Scream" is thought to be partly inspired by these sunsets.

The volcano was actually called Krakatau or Krakatan by locals; "Krakatoa" was a European misspelling.

Krakatau Links:

Wild Indonesia: Birth of an Island

Great PBS site on Anak Krakatau, the "son of Krakatoa", as well as overview of 1883 eruption.

Volcano Live's Krakatau Pages

Several photos of 2009 eruption, timeline of recent and historic eruptions.

How Volcanoes Work: Krakatau

Detailed description of 1883 eruption, illustrated with etchings and eyewitness accounts.

Global Volcanism Program's Krakatau Updates

Reports on Anak Krakatau eruptions starting in 1972.

CVO's Krakatau 1883 Page

Detailed scientific information on the eruption.

Krakatoa, The Last Days Documentary

Scary made-for-tv movie dramatizing eyewitness accounts. PG-13, gripping but terrifying.

Video of Anak Krakatau ("Son of Krakatoa") Erupting in 2009:

(The music is a pop song I remember from my childhood that played frequently on the radio in the months before Mt. St. Helens blew up.)

Mt. Pelée in 1902, HVO/USGS

In 1902, Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre. 2 out of the city's 28,000 inhabitants survived the glowing cloud of superheated ash that swept over the city. Martinique is not all that far from Montserrat, and the eruptive styles of their volcanoes are similar.

Nuée ardente, French for "glowing cloud," is a term for a type of pyroclastic flow: it's superheated ash and gas traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. At night, it glows red. Unfortunately for Saint-Pierre, this devastating type of eruption was first recognized and named for the glowing cloud that hit the city.

Mt. Pelée Links:

Mount Pelée, Martinique: 1902-2002

Summary of 1902 eruption and ongoing activity

All About Mt. Pelée Volcano

In-depth site with good photos.

Survivor of 1929 Eruption of Mt. Pelée

Account of early volcanologist Frank Perret who narrowly escaped asphyxiation.

Mt. Pelee Video:

Mount Pinatubo by Willie Scott, CVO/USGS

Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines is another of those St. Helens type volcanoes that produced massive amounts of ash and pyroclastic flows. Pinatubo was the largest eruption of the 20th century, causing temperatures around the world to drop, displacing over a million evacuees, and killing 900 people. Nevertheless, without timely evacuations, the toll would have been much worse.

Mt. Pinatubo Links:

Mount Pinatubo: A Sleeping Giant Awakens

Excellent site chronicling the 1991 eruption.

Mt. Pinatubo on USGS Site

Pinatubo's USGS page has an overwhelming amount of information and a photo gallery.

Photo Credit: NGDC/NOAA

Mexican farmer Dionisio Pulido had a barren spot on his property. Nothing would grow there. One day in 1943, he found out why! A crack opened in the ground, a cinder cone began to form, and a new volcano was born: Mount Paricutín.

Thankfully, there were almost no casualties from this eruption -- three people were struck by lightning generated from the clouds -- but a couple of villages as well as Pulido's farm were buried.

Paricutín Links:

Website on the volcano, with lots of volcano-related resources for teachers and students.

The Eruption of Paricutin (1943-1952)

Geologist Dr. Vic Camp's summary of the eruption with a few good photos.

Mount Paricutín Videos:

Credit: International Space Station

Krakatau is better-known because it happened just after the worldwide telegraph network was set up. However, the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora was even larger: the biggest eruption in recorded history. 36 cubic miles (150 km) were blasted into the sky. The year 1816 was known as the Year of No Summer, because the volcanic dust in the sky blocked sunlight and stunted crops, causing widespread famine.

Tambora Volcano Links:

NPR Special on Tambora

Interview with Dr. Harald Sigurdsson, professor of oceanography, on Tambora eruption.

The History of the Tambora Eruption

Good site chronicling what few records and accounts we have of the 1815 eruption.

Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death

Weather article detailing what happened in New England and Canada in 1816.

The Summer of '16

Article by weatherman Dan Suri on the worldwide impact of the Tambora eruption (and why an 1815 eruption caused no summer a year later).

Lost Kingdom of Tambora Discovered

2004 National Geographic article on newly-discovered site.

NASA/JPL photo of Thera

Thera, aka Santorini, is my favorite volcano, because it may have been partially responsible for the Atlantis legend.

Sometime between 1600 and 1500BC, Thera exploded with a force 130 times stronger than Mt. St. Helens -- even greater than Tambora -- sending tsunamis across the Mediterranean. At the time, the seafaring Minoan civilization dominated the region. Shortly after, the Minoans went into decline and were eventually conquered by mainland (pre-) Greeks. The eruption was probably not the sole reason for the Minoan collapse, but it certainly didn't help.

Most of the island of Thera was blown away; all that's left is a C-shaped ring of islands with a smaller, modern volcano coming up in the middle. On the south coast of the main island is the archaeological site of Akrotiri, the Bronze Age equivalent of Pompeii.

I'm not sure when Nea Kamini (the new volcano) came up in the middle of the caldera, but it erupted as recently as 1950.

Thera Volcano (Santorini) Links:

Ye Gods! Ancient Volcano Could Have Blasted Atlantis

Surprisingly good 2006 USA Today article on the eruption of Thera and the geology/archaeology debate about dates.

Thera eruption larger than previously thought

BBC article on new findings: "volcanic pumice to a depth of 80m covering the ocean floor for 20-30km in all directions [from Thera]."

The Thera Expedition

Forget those general-public news articles -- get the info from the horse's mouth! This excellent, in-depth website was put together by the team that investigated the Thera eruption in 2006.

How Volcanoes Work - Santorini Eruption

Geologist Vic Camp's site, as usual, has great facts and photos.

Surtsey [Source: Wikimedia Commons from NGDC/NOAA].

Surtsey off the south coast of Iceland is the youngest island in the world, at least until Hawai'i's offshore seamount, Lo'ihi, breaks the surface. Discovered by fishermen as it was emerging from the ocean, Surtsey is an incredibly valuable living laboratory for biologists as well as geologists.

Taking great care not to introduce any species, scientists have been able to watch as each plant, bird, and animal species colonizes the island.

Surtsey's eruption only lasted for four years. During that time, a few other small islands popped up around it and quickly disappeared. The ocean is now slowly eroding away the island of Surtsey. Time will tell whether the sea reclaims it, or new eruptions rebuild it.

Surtsey Links:

An Island Is Born

Excellent summary of the birth of Surtsey, written for the general public.

Surtsey: Iceland's Island of Fire

Another brief general-public article. I like the Surtsey postage stamps!

Surtsey, Iceland

A more in-depth article on Surtsey with good photos. English translation a little spotty.

Surtsey: Colonization of the Land

One page on the in-depth scientific website of the Surtsey Research Society.

Surtsey Videos:

28-by-47-mile Yellowstone Caldera, CVO/USGS

The good news: The Yellowstone Caldera doesn't erupt very often: the last eruption was 70,000 years ago, and the last monster eruption was over 600,000 years ago.

The bad news: If and when it ever erupts again, it could wipe out large chunks of the U.S.

In the meantime, the magma under this giant caldera causes geysers, mudpots, acid lakes, tourism, sensationalistic cable TV specials, and conspiracy theorists. As 2012 approaches, you should see more and more of the latter.

(For answers to questions like, "Is Yellowstone Overdue?" see the Yellowstone Volcano FAQ).

Yellowstone Supervolcano Links:

Discovery Channel's Supervolcano Article

Introduction to the Yellowstone Supervolcano.

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Lots of geological information, photos, data on current activity.

Cascades Volcano Observatory's Yellowstone Page

Yet more information, maps, and geological information. A bit dense.

Yellowstone Volcano Videos

Mount Redoubt, March 23, 2009 [Source: AVO/USGS]

Mount Redoubt started erupting on March 23, 2009, grounding air traffic and covering part of Alaska (including Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla) in ash. It continued erupting into July 2009. It's not in the same league as the volcanoes above, but I mention it since it garnered a lot of news coverage.

Mount Redoubt first alerted authorities to the danger of ash for jet travel in 1989, when it nearly brought down KLM passenger flight 867 and damaged several other planes.

Mount Redoubt Link:

Mount Redoubt Page of Alaska Volcano Observatories Website, with photos, scientific studies, and descriptions of past eruptions (click "Reported Activity" in sidebar).

Olympus Mons by JPL/NASA

The more astronomers look, the more volcanoes they find. However, it's amazingly cold out there -- the sun is far away -- so what passes for "rock" and "molten rock" on other worlds would be water or gas on Earth.

Guestbook for Volcanology Buffs - Drop a Note and Browse the Rest of This Site

Submit a Comment

  • Rinjani Trekking profile image

    haerul azmi 

    2 years ago from Lombok,Indonesia

    Very usefull information,and trusted site

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    I am a geology major at my college and I have done some studies on the Philippines Volcano and of course mt st Helens. They are so dangerous yet, so wonderfully mysterious. Great lens with lots of videos and information :) Chris

  • Zut Moon profile image

    Zut Moon 

    6 years ago

    Very Nice Lens with lots of info. Blessed

  • jacinto888 profile image


    6 years ago

    Great lens, good information on volcanoes!

  • agoofyidea profile image


    6 years ago

    When I was a kid I wanted to be a volcanologist. I became a National Park Ranger at a Volcano instead. Great lens. Blessed.

  • efriedman profile image


    7 years ago

    Excellent resource. This page is well written and well presented. Lots of good information useful for teachers and interesting for anyone.


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