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Top 20 Deadliest Volcanic Eruptions Since 1900

By: Christopher C. Burt, 8:40 PM GMT on October 07, 2014

Top 20 Deadliest Volcanic Eruptions Since 1900

The confirmed death toll from the eruption of Mt. Ontake in Japan on September 27th now stands at 54 with 12 still missing. The event now ranks as the Earth’s 16th or 17th deadliest volcanic eruption since 1900. Here’s a brief review of the top 20 deadliest such events in the world since 1900. The death tolls are according to Wikipedia but other sources have differing figures.

1. Mt. Pelee, Martinique: 33,000 deaths in May 1902

A violent eruption and pyroclastic flow destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique on May 8, 1902. It is said that there was only a single survivor left in the town: a prisoner held in an underground cell. There were, however, other survivors who lived on the outskirts of the city or who escaped by sea. For more about this historic event see this excellent account in Wikipedia.

The remains of Saint-Pierre following the eruption of Mt. Pelee in May 1902. Photo from Wikicommons.

2. Nevado del Ruiz, Columbia: 23,000 deaths in November 1985

A small eruption of this 17,457-foot Columbian volcano on November 13, 1985 created a lahar (an avalanche of melted snow, mud and rock) that engulfed the town of Armero in Tolima Province killing at least 23,000. Read more about this event here.

A photograph of the lahar/mudflow that destroyed the town of Armero, Columbia in November 1985 killing 23,000. The town was located in the center of this photo taken in late November 1985. Photo from Wikicommons.

3. Santa Maria, Guatemala: 6,000 deaths in October 1902

Amazingly, the 3rd deadliest volcanic eruption in the world since 1900 occurred just months following the Mt. Pelee disaster. The Santa Maria Volcano is located near the town of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala and erupted with such force on October 24, 1902 that ash fell in San Francisco, California some 2,500 miles away. At least 5,000 residents in towns near the volcano in Guatemala died with about 1,000 additional deaths occurring due to disease following the eruption. Learn more here.

A rare photo of the 1902 eruption of Santa Maria Volcano. Photo from Wikicommons.

4. Mt. Kelud (Kelut), Indonesia: 5,115 deaths in May 1919

Indonesia has suffered the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in modern history such as that of Krakatoa in 1883 that killed at least 36,000 and that of Mount Tambora in 1815 that killed over 100,000 and altered the Earth’s climate for years. Since 1900, the deadliest Indonesian eruption was that of Mt. Kelud on the island of Java (not far from Surabaya) on May 19, 1919 when at least 5,000 were killed by lahars that overran villages surrounding the volcano. Read more about Mt. Kelud here.

Gunung Kelud (Mt. Kelud, elevation 5,680’) erupted most recently in February this year (2014) threatening more than 200,000 people who live within a radius of just 6 miles around the volcano. Unlike 1919, there were no injuries as a result of the event. Photographer not identified.

5. El Chichon (Chichonal), Mexico: 3,500 deaths in April 1982

El Chichon, in northwestern Chiapas State, Mexico erupted three times between March 29th and April 4th, 1982 completely destroying nine villages and killing as many as 3,500 people. It was the worst volcanic disaster in modern Mexican history. This Wikipedia story about the eruption claims a death toll of just 2,000.

The ash cloud during one of the eruptions of El Chichon in March and April 1982. Some 2,000 to 3,500 deaths were reported in the Chiapas State of Mexico. Photographer not identified.

6. Mt. Lamington, Papua New Guinea: 2,942 deaths in January 1951

A violent eruption of Mt. Lamington on January 21, 1951 in Papua New Guinea sent pyroclastic flows over towns near the volcano killing almost 3,000 people (or more according to some sources). Read more about the event here.

The violence of the blast of Mt. Lamington is evidenced by this image of the remains of some sort of vehicle in a tree following the eruption in 1951. Photo from National Library of Australia.

7. La Soufriere, St. Vincent: 1,680 deaths in May 1902

Just hours before the eruption of Mt. Pelee in Martinique, the Soufriere Volcano on nearby St. Vincent Island erupted with great force killing 1,680 mostly Carib residents. In June 1997 another eruption of this volcano killed 19. More about the Soufriere Volcano here.

The summit of La Soufriere on St. Vincent Island. The last significant eruption of the volcano occurred in 1979. Photo from tourism web site ‘Destination 360’.

8. Mt. Agung, Indonesia: 1,584 deaths in February 1963

Mt. Agung, the famous landmark of Bali, Indonesia erupted violently on March 17, 1963 generating pyroclastic flows that destroyed many villages along the slopes of the volcano and killing 1,584. The mountain remains a serious threat to all residents of this beautiful island. More about Gunung Agung can be found here.

Gunung Agung (Mt. Agung) is considered one of the most beautiful volcanoes on Earth. It dominates the paradisical island of Bali and has erupted many times over the years, the last most violent episode being that of March 1963. Photo from Indonesian web site ‘Jacana Nusantara’.

9. Mt. Merapi, Indonesia: 1,369 deaths in 1930

Mt. Merapi is probably Indonesia’s most active and dangerous volcano. The 1930 eruption was the deadliest such in its modern history and it continues to erupt frequently, most recently in October 2010 when 353 villagers were killed by pyroclastic flows. The 2010 event ranks as the 12th deadliest volcanic eruption on Earth since 1900. More about Gunung Merapi can be found here.

Rescue workers search for victims following Mt. Merapi’s eruption in October 2010 when over 300 were killed. Photographer not identified/AP photo.

10. Taal Volcano, Philippines: 1,335 deaths in January 1911

The Taal Volcano on Luzon Island is the 2nd most active volcano in the Philippines. Its crater lies in the middle of Taal Lake that was created by the violent eruption of January 30, 1911 resulting in at least 1,335 deaths. More about the history of the Taal Volcano and its eruptions may be found here.

An aerial image of the Taal Volcano and the lake that was created by the great eruption of 1911, which killed at least 1,355, the deadliest such event in modern Philippine history. The famous eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 killed 847 and was the Earth’s 11th deadliest volcanic eruption since 1900. Photo from Wikicommons.

The deadliest volcanic eruption in modern U.S. history was that of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980 when 57 people were killed by pyroclastic flows and lahars (mudflows).

Here is a list of the other volcanic eruptions since 1900 that make up the list of events deadlier than that at Mt. Ontake (according to Wikipedia—other sources may disagree) and also round up the top 20 deadliest volcanic eruptions since 1900::

11. Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines: 847 deaths in March 1991

12. Mt. Merapi, Indonesia: 353 deaths in October 2010

13. Mt. Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of Congo: 245 deaths in January 2002

14. Mt. Ruapehu, New Zealand: 152 deaths in December 1953

15. Tori-shima, Izu Island, Japan: 150 deaths in August 1902

16. Mt. St. Helens, Washington, USA: 57 deaths in May 1980

17. Mt. Ontake, Japan: 54-66 deaths in September 2014

18. Mt. Unsen, Japan: 43 deaths in June 1991

19. Nabro Volcano, Eritrea: 31 deaths in June 2011

20. La Soufriere, St. Vincent: 19 deaths in June 1997

This past February (2014) Mt. Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia killed 15 according to press reports. This ranks as the 21st deadliest volcanic eruption since 1900. Mt. Sinabung has just erupted again this week. Follow news reports on the latest about this. As an aside, I climbed this volcano (near Berastagi, Sumatra) in March 1978 with sulfur harvesters as my guides.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

When did Mt. Saint Helens move to Oregon State from Washington State??
#16 on your list.
Oops! Thanks for the correction (now fixed)

Quoting 2. Jackalope7777:

When did Mt. Saint Helens move to Oregon State from Washington State??
#16 on your list.
I really enjoy your articles. I just found one you wrote a couple years ago about the wettest places on earth. Have you ever done a blog entry about the windiest places? Or, maybe I should say:  the places where the highest wind speeds have been recorded.

I know that Mt. Washington is often said to be the windiest place in the US, but I know that Portage Valley in Alaska sometimes gets wind speeds well in excess of 100 mph. (I was there in 2005 when the weather station recorded 114 mph winds. It was very hard to get my car door open, and since it was in the winter the wind chill was somewhere in the "die in 5 minutes" range...)
I didn't know so many of the top volcano disasters were in the Caribbean.
Thanks for the great post Chris (yep, a long time lurker).
Wow, I read the Wikipedia entry about the eruption of Mt. Pelee that wiped out Saint-Pierre. You're right, it's a chilling account.

A startling aspect to it was that, following the initial eruption on May 8, 1902, which killed about 30,000 people, a second eruption on May 20 killed about 2,000 people, most of whom were there to render aid and assistance; According to the Wikipedia entry:

"On May 20, 1902, a second eruption equal to the first one in both type
and force obliterated what was left of Saint-Pierre, killing 2000
rescuers, engineers, and mariners bringing supplies to the island."

I assume this is included in the total for Saint-Pierre, although it's a separate event. If not, it would appear to be the 7th deadliest eruption in the 20th century. At any rate, Mt. Pelee would have to be considered the single most destructive volcano ever, at least in terms of the human cost.

(In August of that year, Mt. Pelee would erupt yet again, killing about 1,000 people in other towns.)

weatherhistorian has created a new entry.