Historic Santorini eruption pales in comparison to ancient blowout

January 18, 2024

Image of a volcano - brown land surrounded by blue waterOne of the most explosive volcanic eruptions ever witnessed by humans took place 3,600 years ago, around 1,600 B.C.E., off the island of Santorini in the Eastern Mediterranean.

That eruption covered Santorini — part of the submerged volcano's rim — with ash and pumice, wiping out the inhabitants and, as some historians believe, leading to the decline of the Minoan civilization centered on the island of Crete about 140 kilometers (km) away.

The submerged caldera of the Santorini volcano as photographed from the International Space Station. The central lagoon is rimmed by several islands, including the largest, Santorini. 

Similar sized eruptions of the Santorini volcano are known to have occurred at least 12 times over the past 360,000 years, but new data from an international drilling project show that the biggest one of all took place about 520,000 years ago. The underwater blowout created pyroclastic flows 10 times larger than those produced during the 2022 submarine eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai in the southwest Pacific Ocean.

"We discovered a 500,000-year-old eruption from ancestral Santorini that was as big as any in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is much larger than the eruption that made the present-day caldera of Santorini in around 1,600 B.C.E.," said Michael Manga, professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the principal investigators for the drilling project. "We identified about 10 times more eruptions than we previously knew about, and this is one of the best studied places on Earth!"

paper describing the results of the project was published Jan. 15 in the open-access journal Communications Earth & Environment, which is part of Nature Portfolio.

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