pyroclastic flows

On this day, 414 years ago, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history in the Western hemisphere occurred at Huaynaputina, in the Andes, in Peru. For several days before the eruption the great mountain in the Moquegua region had been restive, emitting hot gases and ominous rumbling noises, but on the morning of February 19, 1600, all hell broke loose. Huge explosions that reminded observers of cannon fire roared from the summit and the gaping crater began to spew burning ash into the sky. Tidal waves of hot gas and rock, called tephra, spewed out of the angry mountain. After an hour ash began to fall like snow all over the Andean region. Fifteen hundred people died in the disaster.

The eruption of Mt. Huaynaputina occurred at a strange time in the history of Peru and South America in general. What was formerly the Inca Empire had only been part of Spanish America for a few decades. Conquistador Francisco Pizarro first arrived in Peru in 1528, but the conquest of the Andean region wasn’t really complete until the 1570s. Nonetheless, the Quechua people remained and many still worshiped the old gods even after the Spanish sought to introduce Catholicism by force. In fact many local people believed that the eruption of Huaynaputina was punishment from the Inca god Supay–often characterized as the Inca version of the Devil–and sacrifices had been offered to him at Mt. Huaynaputina in the weeks before the catastrophic eruption. There is no way such a cataclysm could not have been interpreted in religious or apocalyptic terms, both by the Quechua who lived in the region and the Spanish who tried, not always successfully, to rule them.


Mt. Huaynaputina today, from Google Earth. The grayish stuff on the side is the remnant of the ash flow from the 1600 eruption.

Mt. Huaynaputina’s eruption was an important event in the environmental history of the Western Hemisphere and the world. The ash and sulfur dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by Mt. Huaynaputina altered the world’s climate, and in fact 1600 was an abnormally cold year in many places around the globe. Climate disruptions from the volcano are blamed for the horrible famine that afflicted Russia from 1601 to 1603. Indeed, Mt. Huaynaputina was a slightly smaller version of the global climate change that occurred in the 1810s, triggered among other things by the eruption of Mt. Tambora and the famous “Year Without Summer.” (That is the subject of my academic research).

Today Mt. Huaynaputina is quiet. There have been no eruptions since 1600. But volcanism is a tricky thing. Who knows when Supay’s wrath may strike again?

The photo at the top of this article is obviously not Mt. Huaynaputina. It is Mt. Mayon in the Philippines, but provided here to illustrate what the explosion and ashfall at Huaynaputina may have looked like.