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Five biggest volcano eruptions in recent history

The eruption at Eyafjallajökull volcano in Iceland has been hugely disruptive to world travel. But as a volcanic event, it's barely worth mentioning.

By Staff Writer / April 18, 2010

This picture is of a June 12, 1991, eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines – one of the smaller eruptions that preceded the main eruption on June 15. That eruption was the biggest since 1912 – a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano rates a 2 or 3.



The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland is having a major impact on travel and commerce in Europe and worldwide. But as a volcanic event, it barely rates mentioning.

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By the measure of the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) – a sort-of Richter scale for eruptions – the current outburst is probably a 2 or a 3, experts say. In other words, eruptions like Eyjafjallajökull happen virtually every year somewhere in the world.

The biggest eruption of the past millennium, by contrast, was a 7. Given that each number on the scale represents an eruption 10 times more powerful than the previous, that means Eyjafjallajökull is 10,000 times less powerful than one in Indonesia's Sunda Islands in 1815.

IN PICTURES: Iceland volcano

Here are the five VEI 6 and above eruptions since 1700, according to Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program.

(For a look at Iceland's long volcanic history, click here.)


April 10, 1815

The Tambora eruption was the largest in modern history. According to the Global Volcanism Program, it was the only eruption in at least 1,000 years to rate a VEI 7.

The eruption of Mt. Tambora in what is now Indonesia cast a veil of ash around the world, lowering global temperatures by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The result was the "year without a summer" in 1816. A foot of snow fell in Quebec City, Quebec, in June. Crops failed worldwide in what historian John Post called "the last great subsistence crisis of the Western world."

The eruption is also tangentially credited with the invention of the bicycle, as the cost of maintaining horses rose, both because of the cost of oats and the death of many horses.


Aug. 27, 1883

The obliteration of the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in a series of eruptions ending on Aug. 27, 1883, is, in many ways, the most famous modern volcanic cataclysm. The sound of the explosion was heard some 3,000 miles away, across the Indian Ocean on Rodrigues Island.

The VEI 6 eruption created a tsunami 150 feet tall, and a ship 50 miles away reported being blasted by hurricane-force winds from the eruption.