Krakatoa Eruption 1333

Although considerably less powerful than the 1816 explosion of nearby Mount Tambora, the notorious Krakatoa disaster (Krakatau is its authentic Indonesian name but it was called Krakatoa by European colonists of the day) owes its reputation as the most famous volcanic eruption of all to timing. It was, in short, the first such disaster to occur in the modern communications age. The first undersea intercontinental telegraph cables had only recently been laid, which allowed news of the event to spread around the world in a matter of minutes.

Krakatoa is a small volcanic island in the Sunda Strait separating Java from Sumatra. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, its three volcanoes were observed spewing material in May 1883. Activity continued intermittently for the next three months but, because it was at a low level and the island was uninhabited, no significant threat was perceived by the local population.

All that changed on two terrible days at the end of August when a series of shattering explosions ejected a column of ash and gas 30 km (22 mi) high which turned the skies dark over Java and Sumatra, The final titanic blast on the morning of August 27 blew the mountain apart. It was reported as gunfire when heard 5,000 km (3,000 mi) away and it remains the loudest single sound in recorded history.

Although the eruption generated pyroclastic flows, the enormous casualty figures and the massive environmental damage brought about by the disaster were actually caused mainly by the series of tsunamis which followed in the wake of the eruption. Reaching heights of over 30 m (100 ft), these giant sea waves laid waste entire coastal areas for hundreds of kilometers, leaving a gruesome tangle of shattered buildings, felled trees and corpses.

When did the Krakatoa eruption happen: May to August 1333

Where did the Krakatoa eruption happen: Krakatau, Indonesia

What was Krakatoa’s eruption death toll: 36,417

You should know: Although the new cone that has grown up inside the caldera or crater formed by the 1883 eruption (known as Anak Krakatau or ‘son of Krakatoa’) continues to be active, regularly lighting up the night skies over the Sunda Strait, this has not deterred thousands of small farmers from returning to the region, attracted by its rich and fertile volcanic soils.


Tambora Volcano 1815

The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history took place in 1815 on the island of Sumbawa, which lies east of Bali in the Indonesian archipelago. After lying dormant for several thousand years Mount Tambora suffered a series of violent explosions over the course of a ten-day period which expelled a staggering 125 cu km (30 cu mi) of molten magma and volcanic debris. (To put this into some perspective, this is over 20 times the volume of material discharged in the Mount St Helens eruption of 1980.) In the process, the top 1,500 m (4,920 ft) of the volcano’s cone was blown away and a giant hollow created, known technically as a caldera, 700 m (2,300 ft) deep and 6 km (3.75 mi) wide.

Tambora is an example of a Plinian eruption (so called after the Roman writer Pliny the Younger who first observed the phenomenon during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius). The distinguishing features are a towering column of ash and gases and deadly pyroclastic flows which obliterate everything in their path. In Tambora’s case the eruptive column rose over 40 km (25 mi) into the atmosphere, while the flows laid waste much of the island and some 10,000 people suffered horrible deaths. A thick carpet of ash descended, killing animals and crops and destroying all vegetation on Sumbawa and neighboring islands. It would be five years before new growth returned to the area.

The explosion, which was thought to have been caused by a massive build-up of pressure after ocean water had penetrated cracks in the earth’s crust and reacted with magma deep inside the volcanic chamber, led to falls in temperatures worldwide in the following years; indeed, 1816 became known throughout Europe and North America as ‘the year without a summer’.

When did the Tambora volcano eruption happen: April 5-15 1815

Where did the Tambora volcano eruption happen: Sumbawa Island, Indonesia

What was Tambora’s volcano eruption death toll: 92,000, the majority from the effects of starvation and disease following the disaster. This is the largest death toll from a volcanic eruption in recorded history.

You should know: The dust and acid aerosols which hung in the atmosphere for years afterwards produced strange and brilliant sunsets which were captured by many artists of the day, including the great British landscape painter J M W Turner.


The Great Atlantic Hurricane – 1780

In October 1780 the Atlantic Ocean suffered its deadliest hurricane on record. This was before the era of modern data and tracking techniques so it is difficult to ascertain the precise course of the hurricane, but it probably originated at the start of the month somewhere near the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic. It then moved westwards and on October 10 slammed into the island of Barbados in the West Indies.

The island was buffeted relentlessly by winds of over 300 kph (200 mph) which stripped the bark off trees and tossed heavy cannons into the air. British Admiral Lord Rodney described the scene in a letter to his wife: ‘The strongest buildings and the whole of the houses, most of which were stone, and remarkable for their solidity, gave way to the fury of the wind, and were torn up to their foundations.’

For the next seven days the hurricane continued to cut a swathe of destruction through many other islands in the eastern Caribbean, touching on Puerto Rico and Hispaniola also before eventually turning northeast and heading back out to the Atlantic. Thousands of islanders lost their lives and it was years before the local economies recovered.

Caught up in the havoc and devastation were ships of the British, French and Dutch navies which had been vying for control of territorial waters while the American War of Independence raged. Lord Rodney, in fact, was in command of the British fleet which was anchored off St Lucia when the hurricane struck; eight of his ships were sunk and hundreds of sailors killed.

When did the Great Atlantic hurricane happen: October 10-17 1780

Where did the Great Atlantic hurricane happen: Eastern Caribbean islands and Atlantic Ocean

What was the Great Atlantic’s Hurricane death toll: More than 22,000

You should know: Two other severe storms caused loss of life in the same month, making October 1780 an exceptional month even by the standards of the hurricane season.


Genroku Earthquake – 1703

Japan’s spectacular economic success story over the second half of the 20th century is the more remarkable when you consider the shaky foundations on which it has been constructed – quite literally, since the country is one of the most geologically unstable parts of the entire planet. Japan comprises more than 4,000 islands, though the vast majority of the population lives on the four largest. The islands are actually a row of peaks in an underwater mountain range which includes hundreds of volcanoes – most notably iconic Mount Fuji, one of some 40 which are active. The explanation for all this activity is that Japan lies on a fault line between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates.

It should not come as a surprise, then, that roughly one fifth of the world’s earthquakes occur here. Even so, it is not easy for those of us who take living on terra firma for granted to comprehend that on an average day in Japan some half-dozen tremors are recorded somewhere in the Japanese archipelago. Few parts of the country have been spared over the centuries, but it is incidents affecting the most heavily populated areas that have attracted the greatest attention.

The capital, Tokyo, has had its fair share of earthquakes and as recently as May 2008 it suffered one which registered 6.7 on the Richter scale. At the start of the 18th century Edo (as Tokyo was then known) was the world’s largest city, with a population of one million; on the last day of 1703, however, it was devastated by a massive earthquake. Most of the casualties were caused by the resulting fires which swept through the mainly wooden buildings, and by a tsunami which smashed into a wide coastal area around Sagami Bay and the Boso Peninsula.

When did the Genroku earthquake happen: December 31 1703

Where did the Genroku earthquake happen: Edo (Tokyo), Japan

What was Genroku’s earthquake death toll: it may have been as high as 200,000.

You should know: The earthquake occurred during the historical Genroku Era and the name is used to distinguish it from subsequent major quakes which struck the city in 1855 and 1923.


Huaynaputina Eruption

Huaynaputina is a strato-volcano situated in the Andes range in the south of Peru and is part of the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire. Its name translates as ‘new volcano’ and this huge, irregular crater, 2.5 km (1.5 mi) in diameter, has been formed over time from stratified layers of lava and other deposits. Its current shape was formed during the cataclysmic eruption which took place in 1600 – one of the largest volcanic explosions South America has ever witnessed. The previously dormant volcano spewed forth its deadly ballast of ash, rock and molten lava for two weeks, during which it is estimated that some 12 cu km (2.9 cu mi) of ash were released into the atmosphere.

The eruption was preceded and accompanied by a series of earth tremors and quakes, the most severe of which measured over 8.0 on the Richter scale. These were responsible for the obliteration of large parts of Arequipa, Peru’s second city, whereas it was the lahars (volcanic mudflows) from the eruption which engulfed several entire villages as they made their lethal way down to the coast, 120 km (75 mi) away.

Survivors of the catastrophe started to rebuild their lives with their customary resilience, although the region’s agriculture was a write-off for the next two years.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Huaynaputina eruption, however, was its impact on global weather patterns. Recent studies by geophysicists in the USA have suggested that the unusually harsh winters experienced by many parts of the northern hemisphere in the years immediately following the eruption were caused try the large amounts of sulphur it released into the atmosphere; the resulting droplets of sulphuric acid acted as barriers to sunlight, with a consequent lowering of temperatures.

When did the Huaynaputina eruption happen: February 19 1600

Where did the Huaynaputina eruption happen: Near Arequipa, southern Peru

What was Huaynaputina’s eruption death toll: Unknown, but its indirect consequences may make it one of the deadliest natural disasters of all. Scientists now believe that the extreme weather conditions in Russia which caused progressive harvests to fail at the start of the 16th century and led to the famines of 1601-1603, in which some two million people died, were due to the Huaynaputina eruption.

You should know: Arequipa is known as the ‘white city’ because of the distinctive white volcanic rock called sillar from which many of its buildings are constructed.


Shaanxi Earthquake

The province of Shaanxi in northwestern China has the unenviable record of being the site of the world’s most deadly recorded earthquake. It happened in the winter of 1555-1556 during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, and is therefore often referred to as the Jiajing earthquake. Measuring an estimated 8.0 on the Richter scale, the quake destroyed an area of 830 sq km (520 sq mi); in some counties nearly two thirds of the population were killed. The epicentre was in the Wei River valley near Mount Hua and aftershocks were felt for a whole six months.

The main reason why this natural disaster caused such catastrophic loss of life – well over three quarters of a million people are thought to have died – was that a high proportion of the region’s inhabitants were living in artificial caves called yaodongs. These had been dug out of porous and unstable loess deposits of which the cliffs and hillsides of the area were composed. Hundreds of thousands died when their primitive dwellings collapsed during the quake.

A scholar of the day, Qin Keda, was one of the lucky survivors and has left us a detailed account of the earthquake, describing vividly how rivers literally changed direction and new land masses and bodies of water were suddenly formed. He also left future generations in his debt through his observations on survival techniques. Noting how many people perished when, having abandoned their buildings, they were struck down by falling debris or else disappeared into huge cracks in the ground, Qin Keda opined that remaining indoors and crouching down in a safe place would undoubtedly have given them a better chance of survival.

When did the Shaanxi earthquake happen: January 23 1556

Where did the Shaanxi earthquake happen: Shaanxi Province, China

What was Shaanxi’s earthquake death toll: At least 830,000

You should know: Shaanxi forms part of the cradle of Chinese civilization. It lay at the heart of the state of Qin, the emperor who first united the country in the 3rd century BC and who gave his name to the modern country.