By Rick Brunson
3 Nephi chapters 8-10 contain a description of some of the most destructive natural disasters ever recorded by man. But exactly what type of natural disaster hit the Nephites at this time? Earthquake? Hurricane? Something else?
Let us examine the text to see what information it gives us on the subject:
And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land (3 Nephi 8:5; emphasis added).
So far, all we are told is that there was a “great storm” that arose. But what type of storm was it? The following verse gives us a good description:
And there was also a great and terrible tempest; and there was terrible thunder…and there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land (3 Nephi 8:6-7; emphasis added).
So far it sounds like, on the surface at least, that this great storm was none other than a hurricane. After all, a hurricane brings with it each of these three characteristics described by Mormon. However, if this great storm was in fact a hurricane, it was a strange hurricane indeed:
And there were exceedingly sharp lightnings, such as never had been known in all the land. And the city of Zarahemla did take fire (3 Nephi 8:7-8; emphasis added).
For those of you who have been in a hurricane, you know that a hurricane brings rain, and a lot of it. In fact, hurricanes bring so much rain that it is hard to imagine that anything within a hundred miles of the hurricanes path, let alone an entire city, could ever catch on fire, even if it was struck by lightning as Zarahemla apparently was.
|Hirricane Katrina, New Orleans, August 2005
Another strange characteristic of this hurricane-like storm is that it occurred in the springtime. This should be another clue that this storm was not a hurricane at all, because hurricane season in the Americas is not in the spring, but rather, the fall. In fact, weather statistics will tell you that approximately 97% of all hurricanes that hit the Americas occur in the fall.Case in point, think back to some of the more famous hurricanes to hit the United States over our lifetimes, and chances are they occurred in the fall. Furthermore, springtime hurricanes in the Americas are much less destructive in general then their fall counterparts.
With that said, it is still certainly possible that this “great storm” could have been a hurricane. If the Lord wants to send a hurricane in April, he can certainly do so. And if the Lord wants to set fire to something in a hurricane’s path, he could certainly do that as well. However, according to President Joseph Fielding Smith, more often than not, “the Lord works in accordance with natural law,” which should suggest to us that the Lord was not doing anything out of the ordinary here.
If we are correct in our assumptions that this great storm was not a hurricane, then is there another explanation for these hurricane-like symptoms? How do we explain the tempests, the thunder, and the sharp lightnings for example? As it turns out, LDS Geologists who have studied the description of this great storm in 3 Nephi generally agree that this storm was not a hurricane at all, but a rather a volcanic eruption.
What is interesting about this volcanic eruption theory is that it could still account for all of the hurricane-like descriptions quoted in the verses above.
Exceedingly Sharp Lightnings
Lightning Caused by the 2011 Volcanic Eruption of Chile’s Cordón Caulle Volcano
For example, according to Mormon, the Nephites experienced “exceedingly sharp lightnings” in connection with this great storm (3 Nephi 8:7). Can a volcano produce lightning? Certainly! According to the journal Science, “Lightning is often seen around volcanic eruptions…. One common type [of lightning] results when individual particles of ash violently rub against each other, generating huge amounts of static electricity.”
And while it is hard for hurricane lightning to spark fires due to the rain that comes with it, volcanic lightning do not face the same wet environment. With no rain from above, it is much easier for volcanic lightning to spark fires when compared to hurricane lightning.
Carried Away in the Whirlwind
Another characteristic of this great storm, according to Mormon, were “whilrwinds” (3 Nephi 8:12). And Mormon tells us that these whirlwinds were so powerful that “there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth” (3 Nephi 8:16).
If volcanos can cause lightning, can they also cause whirlwinds as well? According to LDS Geologist Jerry Grover, they absolutely can.
“The best fit for the whirlwinds referred to in the Book of Mormon seems to be whirlwinds associated with volcanic eruption. Destructive whirlwinds that destroy buildings and take people and livestock are common in volcanic eruptions and have been reported in [several eruptions over the last 200 years].”
Whirlwinds formed from the eruption of Kilauea, Hawaii, volcano in 2008
While Volcanic eruptions are known to cause both lightning strikes and whirlwinds, this is not the primary reason why most LDS Geologists believe that the great storm described in 3 Nephi was a volcanic eruption. The main reason for this wide spread belief has to do with the three days of darkness that followed. As we shall soon see, the ash that is pumped into the atmosphere from a volcanic eruption is the only natural disaster that could have caused the three days of darkness described in the Book of Mormon. However, before we discuss this darkness, we first need to discuss yet another form of destruction to hit the Nephites at this time.
Insomuch That It Did Shake The Whole Earth
From here, Mormon goes on to describe what appears to be a second natural disaster to occur in connection with this great storm:
And there was terrible thunder, insomuch that it did shake the whole earth as if it was about to divide asunder (3 Nephi 8:6; emphasis added).
The best fit for a thunder powerful enough to “shake the whole earth” is an earthquake. And no other natural disaster has the ability to “divide asunder” the very land we stand on quite like an earthquake. But can an earthquake cause the type of sound that that would be described as thunder? While each earthquake may vary in regards to the different sounds produced, a common sound that many earthquakes make is called an “earthquake boom,” which can very closely resemble the sound of thunder.
If we are correct in our assumption that Nephites experienced an earthquake at this time, then the Nephites endured not one, but two natural disasters back to back. And if not back to back, perhaps even simultaneously. Which begs the question, what are the odds of having two natural disasters hit the same place at the same time?
As it turns out, this phenomenon is more common than one might think. Scientific studies have shown that one natural disaster can often trigger another; earthquakes can often trigger volcanoes, and vice versa.
Which Came First?
And since we apparently have these two natural disasters occurring back to back, many have wondered, “Did the earthquake cause the volcano, or did the volcano cause the earthquake?” While both scenarios are possible, one scenario appears to be much more likely in the Nephites situation than the other. However, before we can positively state which event occurred first, we first need to look at the description of the earthquake as described by Mormon, as it will perhaps give us the clue we need. The point we need to make is that this was a massive earthquake, not a small one. For example:
And the earth was carried up upon the city of Moronihah, that in the place of the city there became a great mountain (3 Nephi 8:10; emphasis added).
And the highways were broken up…And many great and notable cities were sunk…and many were shaken till the buildings thereof had fallen to the earth, and the inhabitants thereof were slain, and the places were left desolate (3 Nephi 8:13-14; emphasis added).
And the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea (3 Nephi 8:9; emphasis added).
Each of these statements show us just how much damage this earthquake caused. It was an earthquake so powerful that it actually caused the city of Moroni to sink into the ocean!
Interestingly enough, a similar thing happened in modern times when a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit Jamaica in 1692. When this earthquake struck, Jamaica’s coastal city of Port Royal sunk to the bottom of the ocean, similar to the city of Moroni.
Jamaica’s City of Port Royal sunk to bottom of the Ocean
as a result of an Earthquake in 1692
The point is, knowing the magnitude of the Nephite earthquake helps us determine if the earthquake triggered the volcano, or if the volcano triggered the earthquake. According to LDS Geologist Jerry Grover:
“Volcanoes are known to generate earthquakes, however, 3rd Nephi…requires an earthquake of sufficient size, and most volcanic-related earthquakes are less than a magnitude 2 or 3.”
In other words, while volcanic eruptions can trigger earthquakes, the earthquakes to follow are usually not very large. And since the Nephite earthquake was a large earthquake, then it stands to reason that the earthquake came first, which in turn caused the volcanic eruption, and not the other way around.
And in case you are wondering, it does not take long for an earthquake of this size to trigger an eruption. Studies have shown that that this can occur within a matter of a few minutes, which is what appears to have happened to the Nephites.
Darkness Upon The Face of the Land
And …when the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the storm, and the tempest, and the quakings of the earth did cease…behold, there was darkness upon the face of the land (3 Nephi 8:19; emphasis added).
As mentioned previously, the most likely cause of this darkeness was the dust, ash, and gases released into the atmosphere by the volcano. Notice how Mormon describes this darkness:
There was thick darkness upon all the face of the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness (3 Nephi 8:20; emphasis added).
And there could be no light, because of the darkness, neither candles, neither torches; neither could there be fire kindled (3 Nephi 8: 21; emphasis added).
When the oxygen in the atmosphere is replaced by dust and gas, you lose visibility and can actually feel the vapor of darkness, which is just how the Nephites described it. This also makes lighting a fire nearly impossible. What is more, Mormon stated that many were “overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness” (3 Nephi 10:13). So not only did this volcanic ash make it hard to see and light a fire, but it also took the life of many people living at this time who suffocated from its effects.
Furthermore, the darkness did not just disappear overnight, but it “dispersed” gradually according to Mormon (3 Nephi 10:9), which is exactly what happens to the volcanic ash put into the atmosphere after an eruption.
Perhaps the most convincing argument that the Nephites endured a volcanic eruption at this time is the similar description of Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980. Below is a description of this eruption from Alvin Benson. For commentary, I have underlined all of the similarities between the Nephite volcanic eruption and Mount St Helens eruption:
“Investigations suggest that an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale may have triggered the Mount St. Helen volcanic eruption on 18 May 1980, and as the side of the mountain slid down and the top was blown away, the resulting shockwave blew down all the timber and vegetation within 15 miles. Some survivors referred to the noise and shaking as like being next to ground zero in an atomic bomb blast. Visibility dropped to zero; and as the thick volcanic dust hid the sun, day became night as far away as 500 miles. Spokane, Washington, located just 250 miles east of the blast site, was in complete darkness at 3:00 pm. Bolts of lightning flashed from Mount St. Helens, sparking numerous forest fires, and the air was so full of smoke and pumice that people could not survive outside. Volcanic ash and gases irritated skin, eyes, and lungs, making breathing extremely difficult and fires impossible to ignite. Many earthquakes and/or aftershocks accompanied the eruption, and mud and debris flows changed the surrounding landscape for miles around.”
Needless to say, the similarities are striking. And just as Mount St. Helens changed the way of life in Washington for many people for years to come, a similar thing happened to the Nephites. In fact, the Nephites did not begin to really prosper again until 26 years after the destruction:
Fifty and nine years had passed away [i.e., 26 years after the destruction]. And the Lord did prosper them exceedingly in the land; yea, insomuch that they did build cities again where there had been cities burned (4 Nephi 1:6-7).
LDS Scholar Matthew Roper saw this 26 year timeframe as a striking similarity with another volcanic eruption that occurred in 1902. He wrote:
“The year 1902 saw the eruption of the West Indies volcano St. Vincent. A geologist who studied the site in 1933 [31 years later!] found that the soil from the volcano, which had been ash at the time of the eruption, had finally returned to a level comparable to that before the eruption.”
The effects of the West Indies volcanic eruption lingered for over 30 years, which is very similar to the 26 year timeline that it took the Nephites to recover from their destruction.
While we cannot say for certain, suffice it to say that there is mounting evidence the that the Nephites experience an massive earthquake, which in turn triggered a volcanic eruption.
 Christ was crucified on Passover, which correlates to spring in the Americas.
 Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:27
 Perkins, Sid, “Flashglass: Lightning inside volcanic ash plumes create glassy spherules,” American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 See for example, “Canearthquakes trigger volcanic eruptions?” VolcanoWatch, See also, “Volcanic Earthquakes” PNSN.