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The 1257 A.D. explosion was eight times stronger than Krakatoa (pictured). Illustration from Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of history’s great disaster mysteries may be solved—the case of the largest volcanic eruption in the last 3,700 years. Nearly 800 years ago, the blast that was recorded, and then forgotten, may also have created a “Pompeii of the Far East,” researchers suggest, which might lie buried and waiting for discovery on an Indonesian island.

The source of an eruption that scattered ash from pole to pole has been pinpointed as Samalas volcano on Indonesia’s Lombok Island. The research team, led by geographer Franck Lavigne of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, has now dated the event to between May and October of 1257. The findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s been a long time that some people have been looking,” said Lavigne. After glaciologists turned up evidence for the blast three decades ago, volcano experts had looked for the origin of the eruption everywhere from New Zealand’s Okataina volcano to Mexico’s El Chichón.

The previously unattributed eruption was an estimated eight times as large as the famed Krakatau explosion (1883) and twice as large as Tambora in 1815, the researchers estimate. (Related: “Tambora: The Greatest Explosion in History.”) “Until now we thought that Tambora was the largest eruption for 3,700 years,” Lavigne said, but the study reveals that the 1257 event was even larger.


Brian Handwerk
National Geographic


(Photo: Eshel Ben-Jacob)

This flower-like image is the work of Eshel Ben-Jacob, a professor of physics at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Working with colleagues at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at the University of California, San Diego, he wants to unravel what it is that makes bacteria so adept at survival by looking at pattern formation in complex dynamic systems alongside the molecular biology and biophysics of bacteria.

Ben-Jacob’s work is artificially coloured, but the pattern is produced by the bacteria responding to stresses put upon them. For example, by limiting the food source, the colony can be made to reorganise itself into long tendrils, increasing its surface area to find more nutrients.

New Scientist