Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think

Khalid Elhassan - April 6, 2020

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Huaynaputina. Vibbert’s Mixing

8. Peru’s Human Sacrifice Volcano

50 miles from the city of Arequipa in Peru is Huaynaputina, an Andean Mountains volcano. The cliché of natives making human sacrifices to volcanoes is neither cliché or mythical when it comes to Huaynaputina: such sacrifices actually were made to this volcano. The Spanish put a halt to such practices after they conquered Peru and introduced Catholicism.

However, considering what happened not long after the sacrifices stopped, maybe the natives had been on to something. On February 19th, 1600, Huaynaputina exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption ever experienced in South America during recorded history. The consequences were catastrophic locally, and produced negative impacts worldwide, including the killing of millions of Russians thousands of miles away. Naturally, the natives concluded that the end of the sacrifices had angered Supay, their god of death, who expressed his displeasure with the massive eruption.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Huaynaputina’s caldera. Nature

7. The Gods Must Be Angry

Rumbling and booming noises were heard in the days before Huaynuptina exploded. Witnesses reported seeing fog and gasses spewing from the volcano’s crater. A local priest reported frightened natives, recently converted to Christianity, falling back on their old religious beliefs and traditions.

Shamans, not seen for years, scrambled to appease the volcano, preparing plants, flowers, pets, and virgin girls for sacrifice. During the sacrifice ceremony, the volcano spewed hot ash. The natives took it as a sign that the gods were too angry by then to be appeased by belated sacrifices, after having being ignored for so long.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Path of the lava and lahars from Huaynaputina to the Pacific Ocean, 75 miles away. YouTube

6. Tragic Lahars

Huaynaputina’s seismic and volcanic activity continued and steadily increased. By February 15th, 1600, earthquakes started. By the 18th, tremors were being felt every four or five minutes, some of them powerful enough to shake those who’d managed to sleep into wakefulness.

Finally, around 5 PM on February 19th, Huaynaputina erupted, sending a column of steam and ash high into the skies. Witnesses described the sound as that of giant cannons going off. Streams of lava began flowing down the mountainside, and when they reached the nearby Rio Tambo River, they created lahars – mudflows of volcanic slurry, debris, and water.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
A contemporary illustration depicting ash from Huaynaputina falling on nearby Arequipa. Wikimedia

5. Ash, Lava, and Lahars

Volcanic ash from the Huaynaputina eruption began falling down, and within a day, the city of Arequipa, 50 miles away, was covered by ash nearly a foot deep. Falling ash was recorded over 300 miles away, in Chile and Bolivia.

Smaller eruptions continued for the next couple of weeks, until the volcano finally went quiet on March 5th. In the eruption, lava flowed about ten miles from the volcano, while lahars, or mud slides, made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, 75 miles away.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
The Russian Famine of 1601 – 1603. Slide Player

4. Worldwide Impact: A Volcano in Peru Killed Millions in Russia

Several villages were destroyed, while the earthquakes stemming from the Huaynaputina eruption caused significant damage in Arequipa and nearby towns. About 15,000 people were killed in the immediate region.

The ashes from Huaynaputina spread into the atmosphere, and had a significant impact in the northern hemisphere, where temperatures cooled considerably. Epidemics ensued in places as far away as China and Korea. In Russia, 1601 was the coldest year in six centuries. That led to crop failures, which in turn led to the Russian Famine of 1601 – 1603. Two million people, or a third of Russia’s population at the time, perished in the famine.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Mount Unzen. Sutori

3. Japan’s Worst Volcanic Eruption

The island of Kyushu, Japan, is home to Mount Unzen – a volcanic group situated on the Shimabara Peninsula, about 25 miles east of Nagasaki. Unzen has several lava domes – mounds atop volcanoes, resulting from the accumulation of slow seeping lava, which cools and solidifies before flowing very far. On May 21st, 1792, a volcanic eruption caused one of those lava domes to fall into the sea, resulting in a tsunami and earthquake that caused considerable devastation and loss of life.

It began months earlier, in late 1791, with tremors and earthquakes on the western side of Mount Unzen, which gradually made their way up to one of its volcanic peaks. In February of 1792, one of those peaks began erupting, causing lava to flow for the following two months.

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Mount Unzen in 1991. Flickr

2. A Fatal Landslide and Earth Shattering Tsunami

As the lava kept flowing from Mount Unzen, the earthquakes and tremors continued. On the night of May 21st, 1792, two big quakes hit. They were powerful enough to shake one of the lava domes loose, causing it to collapse down the eastern side of the mountain. That triggered a landslide, which swept through the city of Shimabara down below, and continued on to Ariake Bay.

When the landslide struck the water, it caused a mega tsunami, with waves nearly 70 feet high, rising up to 187 feet high in some places because of the seabed’s topography. The tsunami traveled across Ariake Bay, until it hit the city of Higo on the other side, where it caused widespread devastation. It then bounced back across the bay, and hit the city of Shimabara, where the dust had still not settled from the landslide that had swept through it and triggered the tsunami in the first place. About 15,000 people were killed in the disaster, making it Japan’s worst volcanic eruption.

Also Read: A Volcano In Japan Erupts (1888)

Historic Disasters That Were Way Worse Than People Think
Photo taken from space of Mount Unzen and the Shimabara Peninsula. Wikimedia

1. “Shimabara Erupted, Higo Impacted”

Of the roughly 15,000 killed by the Mount Unzen eruption, about 5000 were estimated to have been killed in the landslide that swept through Shimabara city. Another 5000 were estimated to have been killed by the ensuing tsunami when it reached Higo, across the bay from Shimabara.

The final 5000 were estimated to have been killed when the tsunami bounced back from Higo, recrossed the bay, and struck Shimabara. It did not go unnoticed that the eruption had occurred Mount Unzen, in the Shimabara Peninsula, but many deaths from the ensuing tsunami occurred in Higo, about 15 miles away across the Ariake Bay. That gave rise to a Japanese saying about things that happen in one place, yet impact those elsewhere: Shimabara erupted, Higo impacted.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlantic, The, September, 1884 – The Volcanic Eruption of Krakatoa

Cracked – 6 Historical Tragedies That Were Way Worse Than You Thought

Devastating Disasters – Yellow River Flood, China, 1887 AD

Disaster History – Central China Flood, 1931

Encyclopedia Britannica – Aleppo Earthquake of 1138

Encyclopedia Britannica – Shaanxi Province Earthquake of 1556

Facts and Details – Yellow River

Flood List – Central China Flood, 1931

Hindawi, Advances in Meteorology Volume 2016 – 1600 AD Huaynaputina Eruption (Peru), Abrubpt Cooling, and Epidemics in China and Korea

Huff Post – Death by Meteorite!

Journal of Structural Geology, Volume 20, Issue 5, May 14th, 1998 – Geomorphological Observations of Active Faults in the Epicentral Region of the Huaxian Large Earthquake in 1556 in Shaanxi Province, China

Journal of Structural Geology, Volume 23, Issues 2-3, February 2001 – The AD 365 Crete Earthquake and Possible Seismic Clustering During the Fourth to Sixth Centuries AD in the Eastern Mediterranean

NASA Earth Observatory – Domes of Destruction

Science Daily, April 25th, 2008 – Volcanic Eruption of 1600 Caused Global Disruption

Smithsonian Magazine, July, 2002 – Blast From the Past

Wikipedia – 1792 Unzen Earthquake and Tsunami

Wikipedia – 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelee

Wikipedia – List of Natural Disasters by Death Toll

Winchester, Simon – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 (2005)

Wired – Tambora 1815: Just How Big Was The Eruption?