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Worldwide environmental impacts from the eruption of Thera

Abstract

The eruptions of Thera (Santorini) between 1628 and 1450 BC constituted a natural catastrophe unparalleled in all of history. The last major eruption in 1450 BC destroyed the entire Minoan Fleet at Crete at a time when the Minoans dominated the Mediterranean world. In addition, there had to be massive loss of life from ejecta gases, volcanic ash, bombs, and flows. The collapse of a majestic mountain into a caldera 15 km in diameter caused a giant ocean wave, a tsunami, that at its source was estimated in excess of 46 m high. The tsunami destroyed ships as far away as Crete (105 km) and killed thousands of people along the shorelines in the eastern Mediterranean area. At distant points in Asia Minor and Africa, there was darkness from ash fallout, lightning, and destructive earthquakes. Earthquake waves emanating from the epicenter near the ancient volcano were felt as far away as the Norwegian countries. These disturbances caused great physical damage in the eastern Mediterranean and along the rift valley system from Turkey to the south into central Africa. They caused major damage and fires in north Africa from Sinai to Alexandria, Egypt. Volcanic ash spread upward as a pillar of fire and clouds into the atmosphere and blocked out the sun for many days. The ash reached the stratosphere and moved around the world where the associated gases and fine particulate matter impacted the atmosphere, soils, and waters. Ground-hugging, billowing gases moved along the water surface and destroyed all life downwind, probably killing those who attempted to flee from Thera. The deadly gases probably reached the shores of north Africa. Climatic changes were the aftermath of the eruption and the atmospheric plume was to eventually affect the bristlecone pine of California; the bog oaks of Ireland, England, and Germany, and the grain crops of China. Historical eruptions at Krakatau, Tambora, Vesuvius, and, more currently, eruptions at Nevado del Ruiz, Pinatubo, and Mount Saint Helens, have done massive environmental damage but none can compare with the sociological, religious, economic, agricultural, and political impacts from Thera (Santorini). Major natural catastrophes that have occurred over historical time illustrate the force of nature and the impact on civilizations. Some examples of these are rains that flooded the Euphrates Valley during the time of Noah, and floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes in recent years, such as earthquakes in California and Hurricane Hugo on the east coast of the United States.

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LaMoreaux, P.E. Worldwide environmental impacts from the eruption of Thera. Geo 26, 172–181 (1995). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00768739

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Key words

  • Volcanoes
  • Tsunami
  • Thera eruption
  • Environmental impact