If you were to do a Google search on the term “Most dangerous volcano in the world”, your search would likely uncover tons of different volcanoes across the world as being among the most dangerous volcanoes. Some of these volcanoes would be effusive shield volcanoes, some would be much more explosive.
On paper, this does not make much sense. A grouping of the most dangerous volcanoes should be much more absolute, or at the very least, there should be a lot more consensus. The main problem is that we need a better way to define what makes a volcano deadly.
What “Most Dangerous Volcano” Could Mean:
- The volcano that is most likely to erupt and cause deaths.
- The volcano that in the event of a worst case scenario, would cause the most absolute destruction in the world.
- A volcano that given certain specific conditions or indirect causes could result in widespread death / chaos.
- A historical list of the most dangerous eruptions that have occurred in human history.
- A list of volcanoes that feature a combination of some (or all) of the above.
As we can see, there are a lot of ways that “most dangerous” or “deadly” can be defined.
Categorizing Lists of the Most Dangerous Volcanoes
Since things aren’t quite so black and white, we will be creating a few lists that define dangerous volcanoes by different criteria. Look for these lists in the coming weeks. Those lists will be linked at the top of this page.
Creating a formula to evaluate volcanic risk
As we know, volcanoes aren’t always that predictable. But lets step away from reality and into a hypothetical situation for a second. If a volcano, lets call it Mt. Predictable, was mostly predictable in terms of eruption size and time interval between eruptions, it would be fully possible to systematically analyze a volcano’s danger.
The formula would be as such:
- Find the region estimated to be affected by an eruption. For our example, lets say our hypothetical volcano of Mt. Predictable always erupts a VEI-6 sized blast that devastates a region surrounding the volcano up to 20km from the summit.
- If we were to know the regional population living within 20km of Mt. Predictable’s summit, we could create an estimate of total deaths if a sudden eruption were to occur. For our example, lets say our population is 10,000 people living within this range.
- If we knew that My. Predictable erupts every 1000 years, we would get a yearly death rate of roughly 10 people per year.
Obviously this formula is not a reality…
This is pretty obvious, we unfortunately do not have any Mt. Predictables in the real world. Eruption sizes vary greatly, repose times between eruptions vary greatly, and other factors such as evacuation potential and how many people live near a volcano are somewhat uncertain. But this at least does give us a framework to gauge potential deadliness and what to look for.
While we can’t be as cut and dry as with the above formula, many volcanic monitoring groups actively pursue and publish risk assessments on their own – these assessments can be quite advanced.
- See an example of a risk assessment of the Kanlaon Volcano in the Phillippines done by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology
- See another example of risk mitigation on mt. Vesuvius in Italy.
In short, we probably will never truly be able to know what the most dangerous volcano in the world is.
Evaluating what Makes a Volcano Deadly
Since I will be creating a few lists, it’s important to define what makes a volcano potentially deadly. There are quite a few factors that can play a role here, so I will define each as they will factor into my lists.
- Ability to Erupt in a Sizable Manner: This much should be obvious. All things being equal, a larger eruption will be more deadly than a small eruption. Large eruptions also can cause secondary issues such as affecting the climate, resulting in crop destruction and potential famine.Another point here is that if a volcano is completely depleted from a previous large eruption, it’s unlikely that we will see another large eruption in the geologically near future. Of course, determining whether a volcano is depleted or not is a lot more complex and far from precise.Other volcanoes which recently had a large eruption (especially caldera forming) will likely need a significant amount of time before they can recover to create large eruptions once again.
- Likelihood to erupt in coming centuries: This is very difficult to define for volcanoes, and it’s very tough to tell when a volcano may be reawakening. At the same time, if a volcano has been nearly extinct for 10,000 years and has not shown any signs of coming back to life, I would have a hard time placing it on a most dangerous volcano list.
- Proximity to populated regions: One historical thing we know can cause tragedies is the proximity of highly populated areas to a volcano. Some of the largest volcanic tragedies in history came from mid-sized or even small eruptions, simply because peole were living so close to the volcano.Other examples of proximity can include villages and populated areas in the path of lahar plains or even regions prone to flank collapse.
- Ability of mitigation to prevent disaster: Mitigation has come a long way – Pinatubo’s VEI-6 in a cyclone killed only a few people despite a sizable population living nearby. This was a victory for volcanologists who were able to properly mitigate the disaster. Unfortunately, not everywhere has this luxury, and some volcanoes simply need better monitoring. A lack of mitigation, or lack of ability to properly evacuate will play a major role in shaping future disasters.
Other Lists That Define The Most Dangerous Volcanoes
There are some lists that already exist regarding the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. These lists are not perfect, and their writers would not claim them to be that way.
MDE Volcano List from Volcano Cafe – This list defines the boundary of inclusion as being a volcano that could potentially kill 1 million people within a reasonable geological time-frame. Some of the volcanoes may not perfectly match this criteria, but it’s still a good list, which includes many over-looked volcanoes.
Decade Volcano List – The Decade Volcano list is a list of 16 volcanoes that were identified by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) as being worthy of extra study due to their destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas. This was put together in the 1990’s as part of a United Nations initiative to help prevent natural disasters. There is no set criteria aside from having populated regions nearby and what seems to be a reasonable chance of an eruption in the coming decade.
Deadliest Eruptions in Past History (death toll) – This is a simple Wikipedia list that includes historical volcanic eruptions that resulted in large loss of life. One caveat to this list is that we do not know the life lost in ancient eruptions, and this list is also not the most useful for gauging potential future life loss from volcanic eruptions.
Other Lists – There are dozens of other lists floating around the internet, although most of them do not come from the best sources. Some of the news-lists are nothing more than sensationalism, and others seem to have no real reasoning to their list, putting a volcano like Mauna Loa in Hawaii together with Yellowstone.
A Final Note on Volcanic Doom Predictions
Volcanoes are extremely dangerous and need to be taken seriously, but humans are far more likely to be the cause of our own undoing than any volcano will. If a volcanic eruption like the VEI-8 at Toba around 74,000 years back can’t kill paleolithic hunter gatherer humans, I don’t really believe any volcano will be the downfall of human society as we know it.
With that said, there are definitely quite a few scenarios that are scary to think about, and significantly more realistic than something such as an eruption at Yellowstone. For these types of scenarios, calm precaution, monitoring, and mitigation can go a very long way towards preventing a major disaster.
I will be creating a few lists of deadly volcanoes in the coming weeks. Stay tuned until then.