We all spend our days going through the motions of human life along with its profoundly human concerns. We rejoice in simple pleasures and fear outcomes that might threaten our daily existence. All around the world, life follows varying degrees of predictable patterns, until one day we are suddenly confronted with a horrific reminder from the cosmos that we are tiny and fragile, that our every moment is a gamble for the good grace of Mother Nature, and that everything we know could literally go up in smoke.
There are few natural catastrophes more symbolic of divine wrath and the unfathomable destructive capacity of nature than volcanic eruptions. Three of these calls from the inferno erupted into history to write a timeless saga in decimation and ash.
Mount Vesuvius – 79 A.D.
Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano in the European continent, and, in 79 A.D., it erupted to destroy Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. Pliny the Younger recorded his account of the eruption from his station at the bay of Naples across from the eruption. He wrote:
“Broad sheets of flame were lighting up many parts of Vesuvius; their light and brightness were the more vivid for the darkness of the night... it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
But Pliny the Younger wasn’t the only notable figure in Naples at the time. Emperor Nero was giving his first performance in a theater nearby as the eruption began. Though the earth shook beneath him, Nero insisted that he finish his song before evacuating. The theater collapsed shortly afterwards.
The remains of 15,000 people have been found in connection to the volcanic eruption, but it’s unclear how many died during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Krakatoa – 1883
In the years leading up to the eruption, earthquakes rocked the region surrounding Krakatoa in the Dutch East Indies at regular intervals. The seismic shifts tore through the earth and opened new vents from which steam and ash began to flow, serving as a precursor to the numerous outlets of lava. When the volcano went into its paroxysmal phase, the eruption exploded with a force 13,000 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The sound could be heard from 3,000 miles away, and the emitted force led way to a tsunami that wiped out villagers in all of the surrounding areas. Over 36,000 people died as a result of the Krakatoa eruption.
Mount Tambora – 1815
On April 5, 1815, Indonesian islanders were shaken by thunderous roars from a distant source. Over 800 miles away, a small island housing a long-dormant volcano became ground zero of the Year Without a Summer.
The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) was devised as a relative measure of the severity of volcanic eruptions. It takes into account the volume of products and eruption cloud height, among other observations, to create a ranking from 0 to 7. The eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa was a 7.
Mount Tambora erupted over the course of several days. The pyroclastic cloud was estimated at 9.8 cubic miles with over 10 billion tons of particulate matter. All vegetation on the island was wiped out, along with all of the islanders. At least 100,000 people died directly as a result of the eruption, and countless others perished as a result of complications from the continued emission of gases toxic to humans.
The continued emissions from Mount Tambora were so substantial as to cause a lasting global reduction in temperature that severely affected agriculture. It was this phenomenon that gave rise to 1816, the Year Without a Summer.