When Volcanoes Attack….
In my ongoing efforts to make the world a safer and more knowledgeable place, here is what my readers always wanted to know about volcanoes, but were afraid to ask. Yes, none of this academic stuff about splatter cones and composite craters, how do volcanoes kill people? Granted most of us won’t ever get near a volcano, but never hurts to be prepared. So roughly in order from most to least dangerous, ten ways to suffer death by volcano:
1. Lahars/Volcanic mudflows. What? Not steaming waves of molten lava? Not even close. Most volcanoes in the tropics are tall unstable hills in rainy areas. Volcanic soil is very fertile. A lot of poor people need places to farm in the tropics. Basically mudslides from volcanoes are the most common form of volcano caused death. Lots of ways this can happen, hot mud, cold mud, all pretty much the same in the end, people and villages buried in metres of mud. Yucky, but doesn’t look very exciting on the big screen. It’s not limited to the tropics either, Tacoma Washington is built on an old lahar…and warning systems are in place in case another one heads their way.
2. Nuée ardente/pyroclastic flow. This is the one that blows whole cities away, Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed this way. A huge cloud of hot (1,000 degrees Celsius!) gas and frothed rock blasts down the mountain, destroying almost everything in it’s path. Mount St. Helens did this. Sometimes sheltered people near the edge of the flow survive, but for most folks, they’re um, toast. Here’s a video of one…41 people died in this flow.
3. Tsunamis. Occasionally a really big volcano causes a tsunami. Krakatoa killed tens of thousands with a tsunami. The Minoan civilization on Crete was devastated by a tsunami. One can be drowned by a volcano, who knew?
4. Crushed by buildings that collapse under ash fall. Now we’re into the exotic ways to get killed by a volcano. I don’t know how many people die this way, presumably if people are close enough to the volcano that ash is piling up on the roof…they’re smart enough to flee. Still, this does kill a few people, especially if one includes folks killed by buildings toppled by a volcanic earthquake.
5. Suffocated by volcanic gases/ash. Again, I’m not sure how many die this way, but some definitely do. People with any sort of breathing problem can be in big trouble when ash starts to fall, time to put on a mask and run away.
6. Struck by ejecta. OK, one has to be standing pretty close to the volcano to get hit by stuff tossed out of it, this is usually a fate reserved for scientists who study volcanoes. Oddly enough they can be dodged if one is paying attention, some scientists were on Surtsey Island when it started erupting, they spent a nervous fifteen minutes on the beach dodging flying boulders before a boat could pick them up. Um, yikes.
7. Killed by lava. Most lava moves pretty slowly, a hundred metres an hour is not unusual. (Even my calico could outrun that.) The kinds of swiftly flowing molten rock one sees on National Geographic specials and the movie Congo are only generated by a few volcanoes, and it is usually very close to the crater, and even if not, it is confined to stream channels or such. Plus, molten rock radiates so much heat that a person is likely to burst into flame before it actually gets to them. That’s comforting to know, eh? (Yes, Sam and Frodo would have been hobbit sized piles of ashes when the eagles got there.)
8. Blown to smithereens. Another favourite way for scientists to die in a volcano, just be working way too close to the crater when an eruption occurs. These are the lucky scientists in this situation.
9. Burned to death. This is what happens to the unlucky scientists who aren’t close enough to be blown to smithereens during an unexpected eruption at a crater they were studying.
10. Starve in a volcano caused famine. OK, it’s not directly a volcano caused death, but when a volcano causes a famine and people die…they’re still dead. Volcanoes in 1600 BC, 535 AD, and 1816 (The year without a summer) caused global crop failures.
I’m sure there’s a few more exotic ways to die by volcano. And yes, it’s possible to combine any of the above, as one unfortunate cruise ship passenger apparently did, or the careless scientists in the “crater of death.” People can be really clever when it comes to getting killed sometimes. Otherwise the Darwin Awards would have no winners, then where would we be? Just for fun here is a list of the the deadliest eruptions…clearly people living in Indonesia need to carry volcano insurance.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law, it is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It’s a little unclear who holds the copyright, but until informed otherwise I’m going with…Credit: Michelle Sciarrone. These are people who died in Pompeii, in the “Garden of fugitives.” They were buried in ash, their bodies rotted away leaving molds which were filled with plaster…revealing them just as they were when they fell. Yes, their bones and teeth are in there still too.)