Most of us don't live near enough to volcanoes to think about them on a regular basis, but some scientists have spent a lot of time studying them and trying to understand their fickle ways. These days, we can often see the bad news coming, since most volcanoes send off a few warning shots before they erupt. That's a good thing, too, because when they blow go ... get out of the way!
No. 1 - Tambora, Indonesia, 1815
Tambora was the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded. It was so big, in fact, that it canceled summer. That's right, no summer. So much ash was thrown into the atmosphere when Tambora exploded in 1815 that it effectively blocked out sunlight and solar radiation, reflecting it back out away from our planet, which started getting kind of chilly and cloudy as a result. Thus, 1816 became the year without a summer. Way off in Europe and the United States crops failed and people starved, while back in Indonesia 10,000 people were killed nearly instantly by lava flows and toxic fumes. The overall death toll from the explosion and resulting tsunami was 92,000 (not counting the death of an entire season).
No. 2 - Krakatoa (Krakatau), Indonesia, 1883
When Krakatoa (also spelled Krakatau) blew its top in 1883, it did so with the force of 13,000 atomic bombs. No, really, it's true. They heard the Indonesian island go all the way in Australia, and tsunamis, ashes and toxic fumes overtook entire islands nearby. All in all, over 36,000 people lost their lives and whole villages just went away. The shockwave reverberated around the globe, registering on barographs thousands of miles away. The 1883 eruption destroyed almost the entire island, but, lest there be any doubt that the area is still active, a new island, dubbed Anak Krakatau ("child of Krakatau") has risen in its place ... and it gets bigger every day.
No. 3 - Mt. Pelee, Martinique, 1902
When Mt. Pelée exploded on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1902, it killed 29,000 people and destroyed the entire city of St. Pierre. The residents had been watching the volcano shoot steam and sulfurous fumes into the air for several days, but on May 8, Pelée finally went in a terrifying display. Witnesses on ships just off its coast described a sudden massive mushroom cloud, filled with fiery hot ash and volcanic gases, consuming the island in seconds. Only two people survived the explosion, one of them a prisoner in a jail cell who was saved by his poorly ventilated, cavern-like accommodations. Sometimes your curse is your salvation.
No. 4 - Vesuvius, Italy, 79
When Mt. Vesuvius blew in A.D. 79, it left the entire city of Pompeii frozen in time, buried under a shroud of ash and pumice that rained down for nearly an entire day as the volcano raged. The 25,000 or so people that it buried were preserved for archaeologists to one day study and the volcano itself has now also been extensively studied. It's erupted over a dozen times since the burial of Pompeii, most recently in 1944. Since the area surrounding it in Italy is now pretty densely populated, let's hope it doesn't do that again any time soon.
No. 5 - Kilauea, United States, 1983 - present (continuous)
Kilauea (the name means "spewing" or "much spreading") may not be the most explosive or violent or destructive volcano, but give it credit for some staying power: the Hawaiian volcano has been erupting continuously for over 20 years now, making it one of the world's most active volcanoes. The current lava—spewing eruption started way back in 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president and blackberries were just things you ate. The volcano is said to be home of the Hawaiian volcano goddess, so maybe she's just been really fired up about something these past few decades. But just because it's a slow, steady eruption doesn't mean Kilauea hasn't caused some damage: The eruption has consumed a couple small towns and a stretch of highway and it's added nearly a square mile of land mass to the island of Hawaii as its lava spills into the Pacific. Just last year, Kilauea even exploded, throwing a bit of ash and gas out into the air. You know, just to keep you guessing.
No. 6 - Nevada del Ruiz, Colombia, 1985
When this Colombian volcano erupted in 1985, it killed 23,000 in the nearby village of Armero, making it the second deadliest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. Many were asleep during the nighttime eruption, which triggered a destructive mudslide-like flow of lava, mud and volcanic debris known as a lahar, amplified as the mountain's glaciers melted. And make no mistake, This volcano was a repeat offender, having taken out villages more than once during eruptions over the past several hundred years. Today, Nevada del Ruiz still poses a threat and thus retains its old nickname, "the sleeping lion."
No. 7 - Mount St. Helens, United States, 1980
The May 18, 1980, explosion of Mount St. Helens was the United States' deadliest and most destructive volcanic event, with 57 lives lost. The massive eruption, complete with a 15-mile-high ash plume, was preceded by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, which caused a large chunk of the mountain to slide away. The volcano erupted violently for nine hours, taking Mount St. Helens from a symmetrical, dome-shaped, snow-capped peak to a topless mountain sporting a massive crater. Quite the makeover. The volcano has continued to belch steam and even magma since the eruption as it slowly rebuilds its dome. As for another big eruption in the future? We've got our eye on it.
No. 8 - Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines, 1991
The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, in the Philippines, was the second largest eruption of the 20th century, with a volcanic explosivity index rating of 6. That puts it somewhere in Krakatoa territory: bigger than Mount St. Helens' in 1980, but smaller than Tambora in 1815. (You know, for those of you who follow this volcano stuff.) Pinatubo finally exploded on June 15, tossing out some two and a half cubic miles of material, including rock, ash and toxic fumes. Some 800 people died as a result of the eruption, which left a mile-wide crater lake at the summit.
No. 9 - El Chichon, Mexico, 1982
How about a swim in a mountaintop lake? When El Chichon erupted in 1982, it killed 2,000 nearby residents in Chiapas, Mexico, and left behind a brooding, sulfuric, acidic lake that formed when the dome collapsed into a crater and filled with water. Probably not something you'd want to take a dip in. What's worse, no one saw the eruption coming. Most people thought that the volcano had long ago gone extinct, so when El Chichon belched out a "hello," it was quite the unpleasant surprise. Like other large volcanic explosions, the ash sent into the atmosphere had a worldwide atmospheric effect, leading to cooler temperatures across the globe, along with a nice bonus in the form of some particularly colorful sunrises and sunsets.
No. 10 - Unzen, Japan, 1792
Mount Unzen's biggest eruption happened way back in 1792, when, along with a related tsunami, it killed 15,000 people. The Japanese volcano was largely quiet for the next 200 years or so. And then Unzen began to rumble. It started to ooze lava a couple weeks before it violently erupted in 1991, killing 43 people, including a group of scientists and reporters, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of homes. It remained active, releasing lava and ash until about 1995. Since then, it's been getting some much-needed rest.