20120529-Tambora_Volcano_Sumbawa sl.jpg
The deadliest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years occurred on Tambora on Sumbawa, an island east of Bali in Indonesia. It killed 92,000 people in April 1815. Twelve thousand died in the blast; the remainder died in tsunamis or starved to death because their crops and livestock were destroyed, mostly on Sumbawa and Lombok. [Source: Robert Evans, Smithsonian Magazine, July 2002]

Tambora came to life on April 5, 1815 after lying dormant for thousands of years. It produced an explosion that was so loud soldiers hundred of miles away in Java, thinking they had heard cannon fire, suited up for battle. A few days later came the climactic explosions. Three columns of fire shot up from the mountain and a plume of smoke and gas reached 25 miles into the atmosphere. The eruptions ended in July.

The Tambora blast was ten times more powerful than the Krakatau explosion (see Below). It darkened the sky at noon and produced energy equivalent to all the nuclear bombs in the world. Between 26 and 43 cubic miles of material was discharged (a recorded world record), around 12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock was blasted into the atmosphere.

The explosions created a five-mile-wide crater and reduced the elevation of the mountain from 13,450 feet to 9,350 feet. Pyroclastic flows roared down the slopes at 100 miles an hour and incinerated grasslands and forests and everything else in their path. Fire-generated winds uprooted trees. Huge floating rafts of pumice trapped ships in their harbors. Ash rained down for weeks on areas hundreds of miles from the volcano. The roofs of houses collapsed. Freshwater sources were contaminated and crops and plants died.

Book:“Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World” by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, 2014]

Good Websites and Sources on Volcanoes: USGS Volcanoes volcanoes.usgs.gov ; Volcano World volcano.oregonstate.edu ; How Volcanoes Work geology.sdsu.edu ; Volcanoes.com volcanoes.com ; Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program volcano.si.edu Electronic Volcano dartmouth.edu/~volcano ; Volcano Tourism volcanolive.com ; Protection from a Volcano Report from FEMA fema.gov/hazard/volcano ;Wikipedia Volcano article Wikipedia

Volcano Pictures Volcano Photo Gallery decadevolcano.net/photos ; Archive of Volcano Photos doubledeckerpress.com ; Volcano Eruptions: Ancient and Modern from Life Magazine life.com/image/first ; Google Map Look at Active Volcanoes geocodezip.com/v2_activeVolcanoes. ; Volcano Videos Discovery Channel dsc.discovery.com/videos/volcano-video ; National Geographic nationalgeographic.com/video


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Tambora Caldera
Tambora is The tallest peak in Indonesia outside of Papua. Reaching a height of 2,851 meters, Tambora has been mostly dormant since 1815. You can hike to the rim of the crater and peer over the edge into the crater’s remarkable gigantic hole that has has a diameter of over six kilometers wide. In the crater are two colored lakes. The slopes of the volcano contain house-size boulders and grasses burned by hunters not the eruption. The inside of the crater is barren and the floor is brown, flat and dry. Sometimes a lake is produced here in the rainy season. In the air you can smell sulfur. The local name for the mountain is “gone.”

Tambora is situated near the northern edge of the island of Sumbawa in the West Nusatenggara Province, between the islands of Lombok and Flores. It can be reached in a few hours from Bima by a very bumpy bemo or bus ride. A road climbs up about a third of the way to the summit on the southern slope. From here you can take a trail that switches back and forth to the summit. After several hours you reach the 1000-meter-deep crater. Not many people do the climb because the road to get to the trail is very poor and the bus ride is long and bumpy.

Mount Tambora is known to the world as the site of the largest and most deadly volcanic eruption in recorded history. Just like Mount Toba in North Sumatra, it is recognized as one of the world’s supervolcanoes. However, while Mount Toba hasn’t been active in tens of thousands of years, Mount Tambora is still regarded as active.

The mega-eruption of Mount Tambora plunged the Earth into a multi-year period “volcanic winter.” It left a a seven-kilometers-by-6.2 kilometers wide crater containing a two-colored lake with depths reaching 800 meters, considered as the largest crater lake in Indonesia after Lake Toba. In 2004, archaeologist Haraldur Sigurdsson discovered the preserved bodies of two adults buried in nearly 10 feet of ash in the remnants of a small village on the volcano.

Today, aside from attracting seismologists, volcanologists, archeologists, biologists, and other scientists, Mount Tambora is also known as a prime destination for mountaineers from all over the globe who enjoy the thrill of conquering its challenging tracks. There are two ascent routes to reach the caldera. The first route, the Doro Ncanga starts from Doro Mboha Village southeast of the mountain. This route follows a paved road through a cashew plantation until it reaches 1,150 meters (3,770 ft) above sea level. The end of this route is the southern part of the caldera at 1,950 meters (6,400 ft), reachable by a hiking track. This location is usually used as a base camp to monitor the volcanic activity because it only takes one hour to reach the caldera. The second route starts from Pancasila village northwest of the mountain, known as the Doro Peti is steep. Using the second route, the caldera is accessible only on foot. The climb to the caldera usually takes two days through dense forests.

The marvels of Mount Tambora also lie in the two conservation areas situated at the foot of the mountain. The first is the 18,178.66 hectares Mount Tambora South Wildlife Reserve (Suaka Margasatwa Gunung Tambora Selatan) that offers hilly and mountainous landscapes and steep valleys. Among some of the animals that dwell here are: Wild Boars (Sus scrova scrova), Timorese Deer (Cervus timorensis), White Parrots (Cacatua galarita), Red Chest Perkici (Tricoglosus haematodus mitchelli), and Yellow crowned Parrots (Cacatua sulphurea).Visitors can observe the traditional process of collecting natural honey. The second is the South Tambora Hunting Park situated south of the Wildlife Reserve. As the name suggests, the site is a perfect place for those who wish to conduct hunting safaris. Here, there are a great number of deer and wild boar running freely, making it an exciting place to hunt.

Effects of the Tambora Eruption

1815 Tambora explosion
Tambora’ss explosion created the huge quantities of sulfurous gas which mixed with water in the air, producing a cloud of sulferic acid, ash and dust that was blown around the world by stratospheric winds. Ice cores taken from Greenland in 1815 and 1816 show unusually high levels of sulfur, a remnant of the Tambora explosion.

In “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World,” Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes how Tambora consumed whole villages in “a vortical hell of flames, ash, boiling magma and hurricane-strength winds.” The blast was six times more powerful than the eruption at Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and it dwarfed the one that destroyed Pompeii. Haraldur Sigurdsson, a volcanologist from the University of Rhode Island, told The Guardian: "We know that in an eruption such as that in 1815, that pyroclastic flows extend from the volcano in all directions to a distance of at least 40 kilometers [24 miles] radially and within that zone ... there is an extinction of all life."

Gillen D’Arcy Wood, author of “Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World”, wrote: “Crops failed from Indonesia to Ireland, and millions of desperate refugees poured into the cities. Famine-friendly diseases, typhus and cholera, spread like wildfire. In an ultimate measure of desperation, some parents killed their own children out of mercy (tales of post-Tambora filicide are told from Bali to China to Switzerland). Even in the United States, where a much-feared famine was largely averted, thousands of people fled the Tambora weather of freezing New England for the promised land of the frontier. Within a few short years a half-dozen states of the modern Midwest had been founded. [Source: Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Bloomberg commentary, November 2013]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian, “Mount Tambora's eruption on April 10 1815 smothered villages on the island of Sumbawa with pumice, ash and rock, and claimed the lives of 90,000 people. The impact of the blast was felt around the world. The volcano ejected more than 30 cubic kilometres of magma and thrust nearly 400m tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which caused a global cooling of nearly 1C, creating what volcanologists refer to as the "year without a summer". Debris and ash from the eruption brought destruction to crops as far afield as North America, France and Germany. In Britain, fine particles suspended in the atmosphere created rich, vibrant skies for more than a year. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, March 1, 2006] /p>

Major Volcanic Eruptions

Worst Recorded Volcanic Eruptions (number of dead): 1) Mt, Tambora, Sumbawa, Indonesia, Apr. 10-12, 1815 (92,000); 2) Krakatoa, Indonesia, Aug. 26-28, 1883 (36,000); 3) Mt. Pelée, Martinique, May 8, 1902 (28,000); 4) Nevado del Ruíz, Columbia, Nov. 13, 1985 (23,000); 5) Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, Aug 24, 79 AD (16,000); 6) Mt. Unzen, Japan, May 21, 1792 (14,500); 7) Kelud, Java, Indonesia, 1586 (10,000); 8) Laki, Iceland, June 8, 1783 (9,350); 9) Mt. Kelud, Java, Indonesia, May 19, 1919 (5,000); 10) Mt. Vesuvius, Italy, Dec. 15, 1631 (4,000); 11) Mt. Papandayan, Java, Indonesia, Aug. 12, 1772 (3,000); 12) Mt. Lamington, New Guinea, Jan 17-21, 1951, New Guinea (3,000); 13) El Chichon, Mexico, May 28, 1982 (1,800); 14) Lake Nyos, Cameroon, Aug. 21. 1986 (1,700); 15) Mt. Taal, Philippines, Jan 30. 1911; 16) Santa Maria, Guatemala, Apr. 24, 1902 (1,000); 17) Mt. Pinatubo, Luzon, Philippines, June 15, 1991 (800); 18) Mt. St. Helens, May 18, 1980 (57).

Volcanologists rank large eruptions as: Level 5) like the ones at Mount St. Helens in 1980 and Mt. Vesuvius in the A.D. 1st century that occur every 10 years and release less than a hundred cubic kilometers of material; Level 6) like the ones at Mount Pinatubo in 1991 and Krakatau in 1883 that occur every 100 years and release more than a hundred cubic kilometers of material; Level 7) like the one at Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 that occur every 1,000 years and release more than a 1,000 cubic kilometers of material; and Level 8) like the ones at Toba 750,000 years ago and Yellowstone 2.1 million years ago that occur every 50,000 to 100,000 and release 2,500 to 3,000 cubic kilometers of material. The largest volcanic event known is an eruption in Colorado 28 million years ago that released more than 5,000 cubic kilometers of material. A Level 8 is regarded as a supervolcano. The threat posed by a supervolcano is regarded as worse and ten times more likely to happen than an asteroid impact. If one were to occur today it could kill millions with the initial eruption and kill perhaps billions if a natural “nuclear winter” were triggered.

Village Buried by Tamboro Reveals Clues of How People Died

In 2006, Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian, “Archaeologists have uncovered remains of an Indonesian civilisation entombed by debris from the largest volcanic eruption in modern history. With the help of a local guide, scientists working on the island have unearthed the village of Tambora. Among sediments that date back to the eruption, they discovered ceramic pots, bronze bowls and the carbonised remains of a house with two occupants inside. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, March 1, 2006]

“Inside, a woman was found in the kitchen, her hand next to some molten glass bottles. The house, which stood on on wooden stilts with bamboo sides and a thatched roof, had been incinerated into charcoal by the fiery ash that is believed to have reached more than 500 degrees C. The remains of a second person were found outside what was probably the building's front door. Haraldur Sigurdsson, a volcanologist from the University of Rhode Island who is leading the dig, said the entire village, its occupants and culture were encapsulated beneath the ash, making the finding of great cultural significance. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, March 1, 2006]

The remains reveal how the village's 10,000 residents were probably wiped out within moments as the avalanche of hot volcanic ash, rock and gases, known as a pyroclastic flow, struck. The civilisation on Sumbawa island has intrigued researchers ever since Dutch and British explorers visited in the early 1800s and were surprised to hear a language that did not sound like any other spoken in Indonesia, Prof Sigurdsson said. Some scholars believe the language was more like those spoken in Indochina. But not long after westerners first encountered Tambora, the society was destroyed.

"The explosion wiped out the language. That's how big it was," Prof Sigurdsson said. "But we're trying to get these people to speak again, by digging." Artefacts uncovered at the site suggest that Tambora people may have had trade links with Indochina. Pottery uncovered nearby resembles that commonly found in Vietnam. The dig will help volcanologists predict the potential dangers of volcanoes which remain active today. By feeding details from Tambora into computer models, they can estimate the lethal reach of those volcanoes should they erupt. "Events of this type will occur in the future, and we should be aware of what could happen," said Prof Sigurdsson.

Crazy Weather After Tamboro

So much material was in this cloud that it lowered temperatures around the globe and produced blizzards in the Midwest and snowfall in the U.S. east coast and London in August, caused poor harvests in New England and Europe, and killed water buffalo and flooded rice crops in China and Tibet in what became known as the year without summer. One Virginia resident wrote. “In June...another snowfall came and folks went sleighing...On July 4, water froze in cisterns and snow fell again, with Independence Day celebrants moving inside churches where hearth fires warmed things a mite.” Among other things the volcano is believed to have produced the appalling weather that disrupted Napoleon at Waterloo and caused crop failures and famines that lead to social unrest throughout Europe. The gloomy weather inspired Byron’s poem Darkness and is believed to have had a hand in creating the characters Dr. Frankenstein and the monster by Bryon’s friend Mary Shelley.

Nancy Szokan wrote in the Washington Post, “In June 1816, the weather along the Atlantic seaboard went crazy. The sky over North Carolina turned black with hailstones. Boston baked in 90-degree temperatures — soon followed by a freeze and a storm that dropped a foot of snow across the Northeast. Further frosts were recorded in July and August. Crops that weren’t killed by the cold died in that summer’s brutal drought. Similarly extreme weather conditions around the world from 1815 to 1818 led to widespread famine, the shrinking of polar ice, a global pandemic of cholera and the growth of China’s opium trade. [Source: Nancy Szokan, Washington Post, May 5, 2014]

Krakatoa Eruption

Krakatoa eruption lithograph
Krakatoa, an island volcano west of Java, exploded on August 23, 1883. The blast was equal to 3,000 Hiroshima-size atom bombs, 26 times more powerful than the strongest hydrogen bomb, and 18 times more powerful than the Mt. St. Helens blast. Tsunamis as high as 100 feet were created. Eleven cubic miles of debris was sent flying into the atmosphere.

The most powerful explosion was twice as strong as the largest nuclear blast. It hurled pumice 34 miles into the air that fell 3,313 miles away 10 days later. Winds from the blast circled the earth seven times before they died down and waves escaped from the Indian Ocean below Cape Horn in the Atlantic and radiated into the English Channel, 11,500 miles away.

The noise was the loudest in recorded history. It was heard distinctly in central Australia 3000 kilometers away. Five thousand kilometers on the small island of Rodiguez "the roar of heavy guns" was heard and a captain ordered his ship out to sea. By some estimated the blast could be heard over one thirtieth of earth's surface. Some people in Texas claim they heard the sound.

Five cubic miles of ash was thrust into the air. Ash fell as far away as New York, and humans bones were carried 4,500 miles across the Indian ocean to Zanzibar. So much ash was thrust into the stratosphere the color of the sun turned green and temperatures around the globe dropped several degrees, producing blizzards in the midwestern United States in July. On the positive side, brilliant sunsets lingered for years all around the world.

Book: Krakatoa: the Day the World exploded, August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins, 2003)

History of Krakatoa

At one time Krakatau was a massive island with a towering volcano over 6,500 feet high. The Javanese Book of Kings describes an explosion in 416 A.D., that bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1883 eruption only it was probably more powerful. The entire island was obliterated and villages on the coast of Java and Sumatra were swept away by giant tsunamis as they were in 1883. All that was left were three barren islands that formed around the caldera of the former volcano.

One of these is islands, Rakata, began sprouted a volcano not long after the 416 eruption. Over the course of about 1,200 years two more volcanos, Danan and Perbuatan, emerged from the sea and joined Rakata, creating a 17 square mile island roughly 5 miles long and three miles wide.

In 1680 a major eruption occurred that left the island burned and barren according to a passing ship. After this the volcanos were quiet for two centuries. In May 1883 Danan and Perbuatan began emitting ash and three months later in August the climactic eruption occurred that shook the world like no other.

Main Krakatoa Eruption

The first hint of the impending disaster occurred at 10:55am on May 22, 1883, when a German naval ship noticed a huge cloud emanating from Krakatoa. The captain estimated the cloud climbed seven miles into the sky. The plume was accompanied by flashes of volcanic lightning and showers of yellow ash. The cloud eventually dispersed, but later two more enormous clouds were observed, one on June 16 and another in early July.

The main eruption began at 1:06pm, August 26, 1883 when a huge cloud of steam, gases and volcanic debris pushed 35,000 feet into the air. Millions of people heard the blast and an 150 square mile area was thrust into a darkness that lasted for three days.

Krakatoa Tsunami, 1883
Ash, pumice and lava blocks were hurled into the air. Huge of rafts of pumice were created in the sea. The subterranean chamber from which the material was coming slowly emptied. The rock roof of the chamber, with nothing to support it, collapsed. Millions of tons of water fell on the melted lava in the chamber and three quarters of island (11 square miles, or an area almost the size of Manhattan) fell on top of it. The result was an incredible explosion at 10:02am on August 27, some 22 hours after the eruption began.

The explosions continued and after 3:00pm they were occurring every two minutes. Huge waves hit the shores of Sumatra and Java at a rate of one every 15 minutes. Some coastal towns were showered with ash and debris. Others were thrown into chaos as residents fled their homes to try and reach higher ground as the massive waves pushed inland. Ships at sea bobbed up and down in the huge waves but otherwise they were not damaged. Ash rained down on the decks of ships and electric flames played along the rigging. The Berbice , only 15 miles from Krakatoa, received a shower of ash that piled up three feet on the deck of the ship.

At 11:32pm the observatory at Batavia was submerged by huge waves; at 1:00am the village of Sirik, six miles south of Anjer, was washed away; at 1:30 waves came within six feet of people stranded on a 125 foot hill. A 35-foot wave struck Anjer and penetrated six mile inland. A bigger one crashed ashore at Merak at carried the gunboat Berouw more than a mile inland and deposited it 30 feet above sea level. All the crew members aboard the ship were killed. [Source: People's Almanac]

Death and Destruction of Krakatoa Eruption

Map of Krakatau
The Krakatoa explosions and the tsunamis they generated killed 36,489 people, decimating 165 villages and nearly destroying 132 others. Most of those killed were carried away and drowned by tsunamis. Victims washed up months later as far away as the east coast of Africa.

The tsunamis reached the height of four storey buildings. They hit Java and Sumatra particularly hard and were felt as far away as California and England. These waves were generated by massive chunks of island that fell into the sea. At 10:32am a huge wave smashed into Tjaringin, 30 miles from Krakatoa, killing 10,000 people. The town of Penimbang, 10 miles inland, was submerged as were Tjeringr, Karang, Antoe, Telok Betong, Beneawany and Batavia

Villages were swept off the face of the earth. A naval gunboat was heaved up to two miles inland by the awesome waves and deposited on a hill. Boats that cruised the waters around Krakatoa after the disaster found the corpses of humans and tigers floating in the sea. A Dutch administer in Sumatra saw a wave lap against his house and remove flower pots from his veranda and a town with 800 people below it. A fisherman on Java was swept inland several miles and kept himself from drowning by holding on to the back of a crocodile which he first thought was a log. A reminder of the destruction, which can be seen today, is a huge one-ton iron buoy that was thrust onto a hill a mile inland near the Sumatran town of Telukbetung.

After the Eruption of Krakatoa

After 1883 eruption all that was left of Krakatoa were the same three islands that emerged after the 416 A.D. eruption, only their shape had been altered. The largest of these islands was called Rakata.

The eruption and explosion produced fields od floating pumice stones on the sea that sailors said were dense and thick enough to walk on. The pumice drifted both east and west. Some washed up on the coast of Zanzibar, 6000 miles away and reached Durban in South Africa after one year. Much of it was caught in huge eddies off of the Madives and Sri Lanka and swirled there for years. Others drifted across the Pacific to Hawaii. Pumice from the explosion was used to make stone-washed Levis jeans. Some effects of the blast, Simon Wincester wrote, contributed to “militant, anti-Western, Islamic movements.”

In 1969 Hollywood made a Cinerama movie about the eruption called Krakatoa, East of Java . The volcano was actually west of Java. Producers said that they were aware of this but they chose the name because it sounded more exotic. In the film the volcano was made of polystyrene.

Life Returns to Krakatoa

Krakatoa eruption, 2008
The islands of Krakatoa were completely sterilized by the blasts. Areas with rich rain forests were replaced by barren wasteland. In some places the ash was heaped in piles 200 feet thick. In 1884 all that could be found on Rakata was one microscopic spider. But it didn’t take long for life to return. The first organisms to arrive were blue-green algae and ferns germinated from wind-borne spores. Next came grasses. Within three years 28 plant species had established themselves. In 1888, a large monitor lizard was spotted.

Rakata is about 30 miles from Java and most of the life forms were transported to the island by the sea (seedlings implanted in floating logs), wind (seeds and spores that light enough to float in the air) and animals (that could fly, swim or somehow hitchhike a ride to the island). Scientists observed many pieces of driftwood washed up on the beaches.

Within 40 years nearly 600 animal species had arrived, including rats, geckos, pythons and blind snakes. Pythons swim but blind snakes don't. Blind snakes like termites and it is believed they hitchhiked on a peice of termite-filled driftwood. Rats and geckos probably arrived with humans.

Scientists have studied these islands to see how life establishes itself again. By 1930, forest completed covered the island. Many of the open land creatures that disappeared in the eruption were replaced by species that thrive in a forest environment. Today the islands are completely covered with forests and new species of butterflies, birds and reptiles are still arriving.

Son of Krakatoa

Anak Krakatau (child of Krakatau) is a small, extremely active volcano that rose from the ocean from the remnants of Krakatau and disappeared five times before it established itself as a permanent island in 1930. Situated in the middle of a huge submerged caldera and approximately 300 feet high, the island was created after Krakatoa collapsed during the famous cataclysmic eruption of 1883.

20120529-KrakatoaAnak Krakatau.jpg
Anak Krakatau
Anak Krakatau has been very active since 1972 but tourist boats still take people there. I talked to a group of travelers who went there and walked up to the crater which, at the time, was quiet. While they were standing there the mountain started to erupt and the they had to dash for their boats while fist-size volcanic bombs plummeted around them.

On Anuk Krakatoa are thickets of casurina and wild sugar cane as well as jumping spiders, blind snakes, collared kingfisher, mature fig trees (that don't fruit because their wasps aren't present). Many of these creatures are believed to have arrived by driftwood.

Son of Krakatoa Eruptions

In 1983 the writer Lawrence Blair filled this report: "We approached the crackling silhouette through floating fields of pumice...we stepped into the surf to haul our boat to the beach ...our bare feet sank into sand too hot for comfort...temperatures of the sea could vary very suddenly by hundreds of degrees...and massive magnetic anomalies caused compasses to swing wildly around.”

"By the time we reached the volcano's outer lip it was deafeningly noisy. It was erupting rhythmically at about eight-minute intervals which were preceded by two separate and terrifying sounds. First as the whole island trembled like jelly...This was followed by the bowling alley racket of stones and boulders ricocheting off the walls of the crater as they ascended from a great depth to gush out over our heads in billowing clouds of debris and smoke. Our equipment, clothes and bodies were penetrated by the finest, hardest black dust. Every so often a football-sized boulder would thud in the ash nearby.

"With each blast came a drizzle of hot stinging ash...We had difficulty breathing, our hair stood on end...Here at the site of the most devastating explosion in human memory, we wished to demonstrate both the unity and fragility of the earth by blowing soap bubbles across the crater."

National Geographic photographer Dieter Plage tells a similar story. Visiting the island while it was quiet he joked, "All we need now is a good eruption." Twenty minutes later the volcano obliged and several months later a crater opened up where he had stood when he took some photographs. Boats to the island can be hired out of the fishing villages in Canti which is near Kalianda, South Lampung. Check the sea worthiness of your boat. Other travelers tell stories of having to be rescued after the engines of their boats conked out in the middle of the open sea. [Information for this section from a June 1985 National Geographic article by Dieter and Mary Plage entitled "Return of Java's Wildlife".]

Eruption of Pinatubo

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Pinatubo vertical eruption, 1991
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 15, 1991, was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, and considerably larger than the one at Mt. St. Helens. More than 1,000 people were killed. There were 847 deaths around the time of the eruption and scores died in landslides and lahars afterwards. Pinatubo left 650,000 homeless and destroyed some of the best rice-growing land in the Philippines.

The blast was strong enough knock off the top 1,000 feet (300 meters) off of 5,770-foot-high Mt Pinatubo and make the daytime in the Philippines seem like night. One villager said it was like “a stampede of 100,000 animals.” The National Geographic journalist Noel Grove described it as "a monstrous cannon, firing a shot with effects felt around the world."

No one had any idea that Pinatubo was going to erupt with such ferocity. It had been dormant for between 460 to 500 years ago and the only sign that something was going to happen was gas that started leaking out of the mountain two weeks before.

Ten billion cubic meters---roughly two cubic miles---of ash, rock and debris was hurled into the atmosphere from Pinatubu in a three day period. This is enough material to bury the District of Columbia to a level of 150 feet. Fist-size rocks and debris rained down for weeks. The layer of ash that was deposited was described as a giant sand trap.

In Manila, ash fell that said to be like powdered beige snow. To keep the stuff out of their eyes, pedestrians walked the streets with plastic bags stretched over their heads. But ash was not the only problem that in Manila the day the volcano erupted. Around 7:00pm earthquakes hit. The exit of the lava from mountain had left a subterranean cavern that began falling in on itself, causing shocks. In Manila, light fixtures swayed overhead and chairs felt as uncertain as liquid.

Pinatubo Sulfuric Acid Cloud

Material was hurled 25miles (40 kilometers) into the stratosphere. Layers of dust settles at around 100,000 feet and took years to dissipate. Around 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide made its way to the stratosphere, where it combined with moisture creating a thin aerosol cloud of sulfuric acid that girdled the globe within 21 days.

The layer of sulfate aerosol scattered light sunlight and absorbed heat from the earth, cooling the planet's surface. Pinatubo caused world temperature to drop about a half a degree. Scientists, measuring the depth of the cloud by satellite observation, calculate that 2 percent of the incoming sunlight was deflected from the earth by the layer of sulfate aerosol.

Damage By Pinatubo

Pinatubo, June 1991
Families within 15 miles of the crater said that rocks as big as grapefruits came hurling down from the sky and mud flowed into the houses. Piercing the darkness was strange-colored lightning---blue, green and even red. All told 42,000 houses were destroyed, 1000 acres of cropland buried under ash, billions of dollars in economic losses and nearly 1,000 dead. American geologists, who had arrived several months, had warned the populace that a catastrophic was going to occur or it could have been a lot worse.

Situated in central Luzon about 50 miles north of Manila, Clark Field sustained major damage when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. The bases was decimated further when the U.S, Air Force pulled out after the eruption and looters ransacked the buildings.

Clark is being transformed into a major international airport. It has two-mile-long runways that were made unusable by the ash from eruption that gets sucked into the engines during reverse thrusts and causes the ash to clog and freeze up the engines.

Most of the dead were crushed by roofs that collapsed under the weight of ash or were swept away by landslides or lahars.

Worries About Volcanic Lake at Pinatubo

In August and September 2001, scientists became worried that a rain-swollen lake crater lake at Pinatubo might break through the crater walls and cause a catastrophic flood that might inundate villages and towns, killing lots of people and causing a lot of damage.

Some 25 million cubic meters of water was in the lake. With great fanfare engineers dug a ditch to drain water slowly from the lake and 40,000 people below the lake were evacuated. The water dribble down the ditch in a benign, dirty, brown stream that made many people wonder what all the fuss was about.

Pinatubo is now 1,445 meters high. In 2004, the water in the lake suddenly turned a very dark brown and scientists tourists not drink it or swim in it. Ash from Pinatubo is now sold that is used in making building materials. Pumice stones are used in cosmetics, carpentry and washing stone washed jeans.

Lahars at Pinatubo

20120529-Pinatubo lahar_on_the_east_side_of_Pinatubo_volcano.jpg
lahar on the east side of Pinatubo
Most of the damage caused by Pinatubo was produced by lahars, mudslide-like floods of rain-soaked ash that swamped and suffocated everything in their path. Lahars on Mr. Pinatubo flowed down eight major drainage channels, passing through farmland and villages and in some cases burying entire towns in stinking, gooey mud. The fact the eruption coincided with a typhoon didn't help matters. A sixteen foot wall built to slow down lahars was overtopped by a lahar which also carved out a 60 foot tunnels underneath the wall.

Lahars ravaged the Pinatubo for years after the volcano erupted. Each year during the rainy season, new lahars were created that slid down slopes at speeds up to 25mph and clogged up rivers, swamped rice fields and smothered towns and villages up to 35 miles away from the volcano. Scientists believe the lahars could keep being produced well into the 21st century.

The lasting effects of the lahars is much worse than the damage caused by Mount St. Helens. During the dry season, the landscape is barren and dusty and vehicles kick up huge clouds of debris when they pass by. In the rainy season the landscape turns to muck and vehicles have to make a seven hour detour. Eight rivers have been chocked by lahars, which means the water collects in large pools of stagnant green and smelly water.

The rain also causes river filled with volcanic silt to overflow their banks and flood fields and settlements with a gooey slurry of volcanic mud and water. When the volcanic material dries it forms a material as hard as concrete that have turned once productive rice fields into vast grey deserts.

Pinatubo, valley filled in by pyroclastic flows
One village and all of its rice fields were swallowed up by a gooey, sticky lahar right before the harvest season was to begin. In some places around Pinatubo, the layer of volcanic ejecta, sand and peddles and boulders is 90 feet thick.

Damage by Pinatubo Lahars

As of 1997, 9 billion cubic meters of lahar covered the area around Pinatubo, more than a 1,000 people had been killed and 1.2 million people (10 percent of the region’s population) were left homeless as a result of lahars. In 1995, alone, more than 100,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes as a result of lahars. Hundred of millions of dollars have been lost in lost crops.

In September 1995, Bacolor, a town with 65,000 people about 25 miles from Pinatubo, was buried under more than 27 feet of volcanic sludge form a lahar in less than four hours. People were plucked off of rooftops by army helicopters after the lahar hit. For a while Bacolor was a ghost town with houses and an 18th-century church buried up to their roofs under what became volcanic concrete. About 700 people had returned to Bacolor the next year. They live in shanties and sometimes climbed through a window near the choir in the church for service and to ring the church bell which sits at ground level.

Many people displaced by the lahars live around Dapdap (60 miles form Manila), where people live in homes and along streets made from the volcanic material that destroyed their homes. Many people have lost their homes and fields. Few have jobs and many make money from begging. When they go outside they wrap themselves like bedouins for protection from volcanic dust and grit kicked up by the winds.

The government built dikes and dams to contain the lahars, but in 1995 many of these structures were swept away by volcanic mud. In places were the dikes worked, often lahars that were directed away from one community were simply directed towards another.

One scientist told the New York Times, "During the rainy season, residents of rival villages invoke the names of their patron saints to save them from the lahar flows. It is a competition to see whose saints are more powerful with God. This has been replaced by the more mundane struggle of committees who can pull strings and reshape the engineering projects."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, United States Geological Survey (USGS)

Text Sources: United States Geological Survey (USGS), New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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