Portraits of Earth: Mount Pinatubo

Video Player

Video Versions

Who knew what Mount Pinatubo would do? After centuries of dormancy, it produced the second-largest volcanic explosion of the 20th century.

Special Thanks: NASA’s Earth Observing System, Dr. Mark Schoeberl NASA GSFC, Dr. Paul Newman NASA GSFC

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with the NASA Earth Observatory (https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/).
All images and animations courtesy of NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio
  • Photo of eruption plume and pyroclastic flow in Marella River Valley: USGS/Ed Wolfe
  • Photo of pyroclastic flow deposits in Marella River Valley: USGS/Willie Scott
  • Photo of Pinatubo eruption plume over Clark Air Base: USGS/Richard P. Hoblitt
  • Graphic of Earth’s atmosphere: John Godfrey, STScI
  • Photo of children on a school roof: USGS/Chris Newhall
  • Aerial photo of lahar damage in the village of Sapangbato: USGS/Richard P. Hoblitt
  • Mt. Pinatubo crater lake photo: Raymie Villanueva
  • Written by Lisa Rudy, Explorations Unlimited
  • Designed by John Godfrey
  • Music courtesy of Associated Production Music

The Earth from space. Text, This is the world we study most from space. A fleet of orbiting observatories helps us understand forces and phenomena that shape the Blue Planet.
Viewspace Special Feature. Portraits of Earth. Volcanoes: Who knew what Mt. Pinatubo could do? A volcanic summit from a bird's eye view. A volcano erupts. Smoke plumes from Mt. Pinatubo's exploding top. On June 15, 1991, a volcano in the Philippines surprised the world. After lying dormant for 500 years, Mt. Pinatubo produced the second-largest volcanic explosion of the 20th century.
Dead plants covered in ash surround a steaming hot lake. A series of huge explosions darkened the skies and dumped wet ash across 2,500 square miles.
An enormous mushroom cloud erupts into the atmosphere viewed from a distant village with puffy white clouds in between. Tens of thousands of people evacuated. Hundreds died.
1992. An aerial view of the site, the summit cleared of trees. The big eruptions lasted just one day, but their effected continued for years. More than 20 years after the event, scientists are still studying photos of the eruption and its aftermath taken by satellites and astronauts.
A false color satellite image of the site in 1994 where the ash is colored purple. 2008. Lush greens have reconquered the peak with the exception of a branching river system.
The atmosphere changes. A cross-section of Earth's atmosphere shows the volcanic plume erupt from the surface, through the troposphere, all the way to the stratosphere, just below the mesosphere. When Pinatubo erupted, 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and ash flew as high as 20 miles up, into Earth's stratosphere.
An angular view of the atmosphere from space paints a vivid orange sunset against a deep blue in one shot and light turquoise in the next with clouds silhouetted in front shrouded in blackness. With no rain at that altitude to bring down the volcanic gas and particles, they stayed there for years. Photos taken by astronauts aboard the space shuttle. The first image was 1984, an ordinary sunset with high storm clouds versus 1991, with two dark layers of volcanic material creating a thin layer breaking up the turquoise sky. For months, volcanic particles made their way around the world. A map of the Earth tracks particles as they travel over the continents.
The following computer model represents the movement of particles between June 13th and September 13th, 1991. Red dots are particles that traveled high up into the stratosphere. Blue dots are particles that strayed lower in the atmosphere. Other colors represent intermediate heights. Particles dance around the globe, swirling around and dispersing across the entire planet, save the poles.
In reality, particles moved into and ot of the tropics more slowly than the model predicted. A noisy map of particles concentrated at the equator by a thin line of red high altitude particles. But the plume did, indeed, spread itself around the globe as the model shows.
Satellite observations helped researchers develop more accurate models.
Amazingly, the layers of volcanic particles between Earth and the Sun actually cooled the planet for three years. The thin dark bands of the volcanic layers of ash breaking up the blue atmosphere as viewed from space are pointed out. By reflecting the Sun's rays away from Earth, it caused as much as a 1.3 degree drop in temperatures around the world.
Ozone holes worsen. The sulfur dioxide gas from Mt. Pinatubo also led to increased ozone loss in the atmosphere. A section of the Indian Ocean stretching from the horn of Africa to Malaysia is highlighted in red and labeled Sulfur dioxide. With Mt. Pinatubo some distance to the north east in the Philippines. As the volcanic cloud spread along the equator in the months following the eruption, ozone levels along the equator dropped.
A simulated globe with a greenish atmosphere with a large blue hole over the south pole, labeled Antarctic Ozone Hole. Sulfur dioxide had an even greater impact on the ozone holes over the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1992, the Antarctic ozone hole, in blue, grew larger than it had ever been.
Impact to humans. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the volcano created hazards for people living nearby. Small trails of clouds pass over Mt. Pinatubo in an aerial view.
Typhoons and tropical storms picked up ash and lava and turned it into giant mudflows, called lahars.
A group of young boys stand on the roof of a shack completely submerged in mud. Mudflows poured over the land, burying houses, schools, and other buildings. An aerial view of a town half submerged in mud.
Green again. Forest covers the mountainous crater rim, now filled with crystal blue water. Today, Mount Pinatubo is green again, and the volcanic crater has become a lake. Thanks to satellite observations of Mt. Pinatubo, we better understand the incredible impact a volcano can have on Earth's atmosphere and on the land surrounding the volcano.
Smoke and ash plume out of the top of the erupting volcano. Volcanoes are one of the most destructive forces on Earth. NASA Earth-observing satellites are providing new information to help us predict what might happen when the next big volcano blows. A video shows dozens of satellite tracks in orbit around the globe in space.
Special thanks: NASA's Earth Observing System. Dr. Mark Schoeberl, NASA GSFC. Dr. Paul Newman, NASA GSFC. Produced by Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach. All images are courtesy of NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.