Sunday, 5 April 2009

World's biggest volcanic eruptions

This week the Indonesian island of Sulawesi was rocked by an earthquake. No great surprise there – Indonesia is the most seismically active country on earth, and was close to the epicentre of the undersea quake that sparked the great Christmas tsunami of 2004. This time there were no reports of any casualties.

How different from the great volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa 194 years ago today. The Europeans who had started to settle in the islands in the sixteenth century believed the volcano was extinct. On April 5, 1815, it proved them wrong, generating the biggest eruption in recorded history – four times as powerful as the more famous Krakatoa.

The immediate death toll on the island was about 12,000, but as so often happens with volcanoes, the worst would come later, as the debris spat out into the atmosphere made the world dramatically colder. In the months that followed, up to 80,000 are thought to have died on Sumbawa and Lombok, while it is estimated that the chill weather and resulting poor harvests may have cost another 200,000 lives in Europe alone.

An even fiercer eruption rocked the Indonesian island of Sumatra in about 72,000 BC, and the volcanic winter it generated may have killed 99 per cent of the earth’s human population at that time. The full story of all these eruptions is in A Disastrous History of the World.

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