While roughly a tenth of the world's population live dangerously close to a volcano, there have been only 278,368 recorded fatalities since 1500 AD. Granted, this is a conservative estimate and is based solely on existing records. There are sure to be incidents that haven't been reported and are, therefore, lost to history. But if we average what we do know, volcanoes are responsible for just 538 deaths a year. Basically, you are statistically more likely to be killed by a hippo or die during sex than because of a volcano.
We know this because not so long ago a group of researchers produced a database documenting all known volcano-related fatalities over the past few hundred years. Now, Dr. Sarah Brown from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences and colleagues have used an updated version of the database along with other pieces of existing information to arrive at a more detailed understanding of where and why people die from volcanoes. Using official reports, volcano activity bulletins, scientific reports, and media stories they were able to determine the location of fatal incidents. Their results have been published in the Journal of Applied Volcanology.
All in all, there have been fatalities recorded at 194 volcanoes in 38 countries since 1500 AD.The vast majority of these incidents (50 percent) have occurred in Southeast and Eastern Asia – a small areal of what is ominously referred to as "the ring of fire".
One-off incidents of large-scale eruptions account for the greatest loss of life. The researchers point out that just seven events were responsible for 125,000 – or 58 percent – of incidents.
The team also looked at the cause of death and how that changed depending on the proximity of the victim to the explosion. While lahars (volcanic mudflows), tsunamis, and pyroclastic density currents (PDCs) were the most common cause of death overall, fatalities within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the eruption were most frequently the result of ballistics or volcanic bombs. If a victim was caught 5 to 15 kilometers (3 to 9 miles) away from the blast, PDCs, fast-moving avalanches of hot rock, ash, and gas were the most common cause of death.
Not surprisingly, living close to a volcano raised your risk of death. Most victims would have fallen into this category. Next up were tourists (561 fatalities in total), scientists (67), emergency responders (57), and those working in the media (30).
"The identification of these groups of victims is key for improving safety and reducing deaths and injuries in these groups," Dr Brown said in a statement.
"While volcanologists and emergency response personnel might have valid reasons for their approach into hazardous zones, the benefits and risks must be carefully weighed.
"The media and tourists should observe exclusion zones and follow direction from the authorities and volcano observatories.
"Tourist fatalities could be reduced with appropriate access restrictions, warnings, and education."