10 of History's Deadliest Volcanoes That Changed the World Forever
10 of History’s Deadliest Volcanoes That Changed the World Forever

10 of History’s Deadliest Volcanoes That Changed the World Forever

Khalid Elhassan - January 4, 2018

10 of History’s Deadliest Volcanoes That Changed the World Forever
‘The Last Day of Pompeii’, but Karl Brulov. Google Art Project

The 79 AD Vesuvius Eruption Killed Tens of Thousands – and Contributed to Our Knowledge of Roman History

The Vesuvius eruption of August 24th, 79 AD, was one of antiquity’s most famous volcanic eruptions, and one of Europe’s most powerful volcanic explosions. Vesuvius went off with a force 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The eruption tossed deadly debris, mixed with a cloud of poisonous gasses, over 20 miles up into the sky. As it spewed gasses into the air, lava and hot pumice poured out of the volcano’s mouth at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The glowing hot material raced down Vesuvius’ side to devastate the surrounding region. Nearby towns were destroyed, of which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best known.

Pliny the Younger, a Roman author and magistrate, was 15 miles away at Cape Misenum. He was visiting his uncle, Pliny the Elder – a Roman admiral who would lose his life during rescue efforts after the eruption. History is deeply indebted to Pliny’s detailed description of the events he saw, and those told him by first hand witnesses. His work is the best written and most thorough narrative of the disaster.

Vesuvius had been giving off tremors for days, but they were not unusual. Then, around noon on August 24th, a cloud appeared atop the volcano. About an hour later, Vesuvius erupted, and ash began to fall on Pompeii, 6 miles away. By 2PM, pumice started falling with the ash, and by 5PM sunlight had been completely blocked. Around that time, roofs in Pompeii began collapsing under the accumulating weight of ash and pumice. Panicked townspeople rushed to the harbor, seeking any ship that would take them away.

By midnight, Vesuvius was spewing a hot deadly column over 20 miles up into the air. Simultaneously, lava flowed down its side in six major surges, as the volcano vomited molten rock in a rapid flow that incinerated all that it encountered. The lava did not reach Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it sent heat waves of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit into those towns. That turned them into ovens, and killed any who had not yet escaped or had not yet already suffocated from the fine ash. When Pompeii and Herculaneum were unearthed centuries later, about 1500 bodies were found in them. Those 1500 bodies were recovered from just one small area of the region impacted by the volcano’s eruption. Extrapolating to the surrounding regions, total casualties are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands.

Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose populations at the time numbered about 20,000, were buried under up to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice. While tragic and terrifying, the ash did a remarkably great job of preserving those towns. As a result, future historians got an unrivaled snapshot of 1st century AD Roman architecture, city planning, urban infrastructure, and town life in general.

10 of History’s Deadliest Volcanoes That Changed the World Forever
Ruins of the Minoan civilization, whose collapse was triggered by the Thera eruption. Science News

The Thera Eruption Shaped History and Led to Today’s World

One of the most powerful eruptions in recorded history occurred in Thera, today’s Greek island of Santorini, sometime between 1642 and 1540 BC. It was four times as powerful as the gigantic Krakatoa explosion of 1883. It sundered the island of Thera, and wiped out the flourishing Minoan settlement of nearby Arkotiri and surrounding islands. That gave rise to the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis, which was doomed by a natural catastrophe and swallowed by the sea. Beyond legend, however, Thera’s eruption had the greatest impact of any volcanic eruption on human history. The consequences stretched far beyond its own era, with knock on effects and a chain of causation leading directly to the world in which we live today.

In addition to the immediate devastation of Thera and surrounding islands, the eruption produced powerful tsunamis that devastated Crete. That greatly weakened Crete’s Minoan civilization, led to its decline, and put it on the path to extinction. The Minoans were the Mediterranean’s greatest naval power, as well as the dominant power of the Aegean, including what became Greece and the Greek world. A trading power, the Minoans were oriented towards Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, and were strongly influenced by those civilizations. While the Minoans flourished, the Aegean world in their thrall was by necessity oriented in the same direction, and strongly influenced by the Egyptian and eastern civilizations as well.

Thera’s eruption weakened Crete and the Minoans, creating a power vacuum in the Aegean. It was filled by the emerging Mycenaeans, in mainland Greece. The Myceneans went on to conquer Crete and destroy the Minoans, and became the dominant power of the Aegean. However, unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans’ energies were not focused on trade with Egypt and the Levant. Instead, they focused on colonizing the Aegean, the western coast of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and the western Mediterranean.

That change of orientation significantly reduced Egyptian and eastern influences upon the Greeks. Thus, when the Greek world flourished centuries later, long after the Mycenaeans had themselves disappeared, it would do so as a civilization and culture distinct from those of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, not an extension and outpost of those civilizations. And since western civilization is founded upon that of the ancient Greeks, an argument could be made that today’s western civilization and its impact on the modern world would not exist but for the Thera eruption.