Wall Street Journal Charts Largest Volcano Eruptions

Pelee Volcano

Last month the Wall Street Journal produced an interactive graphic to show the major volcanic eruptions within the past 200 years. I noticed a major volcanic eruption missing from the cool timeline and I was ready to call the Wall Street Journal to report their mistake. Surely Mount Pelée’s eruption in 1902 was omitted in error. That eruption on the pristine Caribbean island of Martinique killed more than 30,000 people. Pyroclystic flows, volcanic gases, and ash from the stratovolcano completely destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, the largest city of Martinique.

Before I picked up my phone I referred to my notes, and the USGS web site, of course. And sure enough Mount Pelée’s eruption, even though it is considered the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century, only has a VEI of 4. How could that be? The USGS themselves say the Mount Pelée eruption was very small, producing only about 3 percent of the volume of ash ejected during the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

With the VEI measuring only Magnitude (measures the amount of lava produced), and Intensity (measures how fast the lava is produced), some of the most destructive eruptions have not been “very large.” It’s no wonder that some scientists are arguing for a change in the VEI to add other measurements such as levels of destruction and loss of life.

May 08 2010 03:27 pm | Volcanoes

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