Published April 4, 2005
Krakatoa killed thousands, and it gained the attention of the world at a time when nations were just starting to think globally. The quiet volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra first gained the attention of Dutch and Indonesian residents in May 1883 with rumbling and ash showers just after midnight on May 10, and a stronger vibration was felt five days later and this time was also felt on Sumatra.
Krakatoa settled down after those initial snorts but came to life again at 1:06 p.m. Aug. 26 with an explosive roar, billowing white smoke, a rain of dust causing midafternoon darkness, rising and falling of the sea, and a rumbling earthquake. This activity continued all through the night and ended with four explosions, the final massive explosion at 10:02 a.m. Aug. 27 blowing the island into the sky. That explosion was heard hundreds of miles away, in Saigon, Bangkok, Manila in the Philippines, Perth and Darwin in Australia, and New Guinea. People thought they were hearing distant artillery practice or the cannon of a ship in trouble, and scores of rescue boats and salvage ships were launched. The farthest report of the explosions was on the island of Rodriguez, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, 2,968 miles from Krakatoa.
Simon Winchester, who chronicled the rise and fall of the volcano in “Krakatoa, the Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883,” said this explosion was probably the greatest sound ever heard by man.
As with so many volcanoes and earthquakes, the ocean was the true killer. Of 36,000 people killed by Krakatoa, all but 1,000 were killed by tsunamis. A Dutch harbor pilot who was interviewed reported: “Looking out to sea, I noticed a dark black object through the gloom, traveling toward the shore. At first sight it seemed like a low range of hills rising out of the water but I knew there was nothing of the kind in that part of the Sunda Strait. A second glance and a very hurried one at that convinced me that it was a lofty ridge of water many feet high.”
Entire seaside towns were washed into the ocean, and skeletons were found floating on pumice, a light volcanic rock that crossed the Indian ocean in masses and made landfall more than a year later in some places. A Dutch sidewheel steamer, the Berouw, was deposited a mile and a half up the Koeripan River, 60 feet above sea level, and was left to rust, its remnants visible into the 1980s.
Other effects of the volcano were experienced farther afield. Invisible, inaudible shock waves circled the globe seven times in 15 days and were recorded around the world on automated barographs, which read barometric pressure. Waves were recorded in France, 10,729 nautical miles from Krakatoa, in seven undulations, of 3 inches, and reached the English Channel as a slight trace on tide measuring devices. The temperature immediately dropped to 65 degrees in Batavia, 15 lower than normal, and it dropped one degree worldwide.
The most notable effect around the world was the atmosphere, colored by particles from the explosions, seen at first in low latitudes, by October in Nashville, by six weeks after the explosion across 60 degrees of latitude, and in New York by December. They stayed in the atmosphere for two to three years, and people reported blue moons and green moons; unusual colorations of the sun, larger planets and solar coronas; and especially the brilliant sunset afterglows: in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and New Haven, Conn., the bright red sky sent firemen racing to imaginary fires. Painters put these colors on landscape paintings, and poets and newspaper readers, writing letters to editors, took new inspiration from the skies.
The year 1883 was one chapter in the life of Krakatoa, which owes its life and death to the energetic subduction zone in the Java Trench, where the seafloor sinks beneath the continental crust and causes earthquakes, such as those in December 2004 and last week, and volcanoes. Krakatoa was possibly the cause of climatic chaos, plagues, famine, migration, war, and political upheaval in four great areas — Afro-Eurasia, Far East, MesoAmerica, and South America — following its eruption of 535, postulated by David Keys in “Catastrophe,” which Winchester calls a remarkable book, with an amazing worldwide scope.
Keys suggests that perhaps Java and Sumatra had been one long curving island before Krakatoa blew open the Sunda Strait in 535. That strait was further cleared in 1883, when the island blew itself into the sky, but Krakatoa is back. In the 1920s, Anak Krakatoa, son of Krakatoa, as the Indonesians call it, rose above the water. Winchester said the island is growing about 20 feet higher and 40 feet wider each year, and when he visits every few years, the increase in size is easily noticeable. Given the repeated cycles of the volcano, this new island may be Anak Anak Krakatoa, son of son of Krakatoa, and with the region as volatile as it is, chances are good Krakatoa will blow again.
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