What Was the Biggest Volcanic Eruption in History?

A look at the largest eruptions to ever occur

Mount Tambora is an active stratovolcano with an explosive past
Mount Tambora is an active stratovolcano with a violent past. be happy!/Moment Open/Getty Images

Question: What was the biggest volcanic eruption in history?

Answer: It all depends on what you mean by “history.” While Homo sapiens have been able to accurately record scientific information for only a short amount of time, we do have the ability to estimate the size and explosive strength of historic and prehistoric volcanoes. In an attempt to answer the question, we’ll take a look at the largest eruptions in recorded, human and geologic history.

 

Mt. Tambora eruption (1815), Indonesia

The biggest eruption since the rise of modern science would undoubtedly be Tambora. After showing signs of life in 1812, the volcano erupted with such force in 1815 that its 13,000-plus feet peak was reduced to around 9,350 ft. By comparison, the eruption produced more than 150 times the amount of volcanic material than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. It registered as a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) scale

Unfortunately, it was responsible for the biggest loss of life from volcanic eruption in human history, as ~10,000 people died directly from volcanic activity and more than 50,000 others died from post eruption starvation and disease. This eruption was also responsible for a volcanic winter that lowered temperatures worldwide.

Mount Toba eruption (74,000 years ago), Sumatra

The really huge ones were long before written history. The largest since the rise of modern humans, Homo sapiens, was the great eruption of Toba.

It produced some 2800 cubic kilometers of ash, around 17 times that of the Mount Tambora eruption. It had a VEI of 8.

Like the Tambora explosion, Toba probably produced a devastating volcanic winter. Scholars think that this may have decimated the early human population (here's a discussion). The eruption lowered temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius for several years after.

La Garita Caldera eruption (~28 million years ago), Colorado  

The largest eruption we have firm evidence for in geologic history is the La Garita Caldera eruption during the Oligocene Epoch. The eruption was so large that scientists recommended a 9.2 rating on the 8-point VEI scale. La Garita put 5000 cubic kilometers of volcanic material into play and was ~105 times more powerful than the largest nuclear weapon ever tested.  

There might be larger ones, but the further back in time we go, tectonic activity becomes increasingly responsible for the destruction of geologic evidence. 

Honorable Mentions:

Wah Wah Springs eruption (~30 million years ago), Utah/Nevada – While this eruption has been known about for some time, BYU geologists recently revealed that its deposit may be larger than the La Garita deposit.

Huckleberry Ridge eruption (2.1 million years ago), Yellowstone Caldera, Wyoming – This was the largest of 3 major Yellowstone hotspot volcanoes, producing 2500 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash. It had a VEI of 8. 

Oruanui eruption (~26,500 years ago) of Taupo Volcano, New Zealand – this VEI 8 eruption is the largest to occur in the past 70,000 years. Taupo Volcano also produced a VEI 7 eruption around 180 AD.

Millennium eruption (~946 CE) of Tianchi (Paektu), China/North Korea – This VEI 7 eruption dropped nearly a meter of ash on the Korean Peninsula.

Mount St. Helens eruption (1980), Washington – While dwarfed in comparison to the rest of the eruptions on this list – for context, La Garita’s deposit was 5,000 times larger – this 1980 explosion reached a level 5 on the VEI and was the most destructive volcano to occur in the United States. 

Edited by Brooks Mitchell