Volcanoes kill about 540 people a year, scientists say

The closer you get to an active volcano, the better your odds of dying if it erupts.

This is the far-from-surprising conclusion of five scientists who have studied every death from every volcano on earth in the last 617 years. Their report, Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification, was published recently in the Journal of Applied Volcanology

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The authors, from the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, compiled a database of all volcano deaths since 1500 AD that “contains 635 records of 278,368 fatalities. Each record contains information on the number of fatalities, fatal cause, incident date and the fatality location in terms of distance from the volcano.”

Among their findings:

• “Local residents are the most frequently killed, but tourists, volcanologists and members of the media are also identified as common victims.”

• There are 1,508 active volcanoes located in 86 countries and additional territories worldwide. 

• “Over 29 million people worldwide live within just 10 km (6.2 miles) of active volcanoes, and around 800 million people live within 100 km (62 miles), a distance within which there is potential for devastating volcanic hazards at some volcanoes.”

• “Volcanoes can produce a number of potentially lethal hazards” in the following categories: pyroclastic density currents; tsunamis; lahars (volcanic mudflows); tephra; ballistics; avalanche; lava flows; gas; and lightning.

• The deadliest volcano since 1500 AD was the 1883 eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia. It spawned a tsunami that killed 36,000 people.

• “While local residents “make up the largest number of fatalities… visitor groups including scientists, tourists, the media and emergency responders [have been] involved in 152 fatal incidents resulting in 823 fatalities, 76% of which occurred within 5 km (3.1 miles) or inside the caldera.”

While counting and codifying every volcano death in the last 600 years may sound ghoulish, it also has a purpose: to meet the demands of the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a U.N. document that calls for the understanding of disaster risk and the reduction of mortality from disasters by the year 2030.

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“As such,” the scientists concluded, “systematic fatality data collection is crucial. In line with the requirements of Sendai, we recommend that future volcanic fatalities are recorded with at least a basic level of detail covering: gender, location, date of death and fatal cause. Further desirable data include the victim’s name (this prevents record duplication, but should not be made publically accessible), age, occupation or activity at time of death (e.g. tourist) and place of residence.

“A better understanding about the lethal range and lethal elements of volcanic hazards could be gained if the physiological cause of death was also recorded (e.g. pulmonary oedema). If volcano-related injuries were recorded in a similar manner, this would provide empirical data for the further development of safety recommendations, equipment and less vulnerable structures.”