Skip to comments.'Krakatoa': The Wrath of the Earth and how it turned Indonesia Muslim
Posted on 04/21/2003 9:11:48 PM PDT by Destro
'Krakatoa': The Wrath of the Earth
By RICHARD ELLIS
The cover of "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester.
When a volcano erupts, it can do terrible damage, as Vesuvius did in A.D. 79, burying the cities and inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum. But as the tens of thousands of people now living on its slopes can attest, Vesuvius is still there, and so are most of the world's better-known volcanoes, such as Etna, Rainier, Kilauea, Paricutin and Fujiyama (yes, Fuji is a volcano; it last erupted in 1707). Even Mount St. Helens, the top of which blew off in 1980, is (mostly) still there. It is very rare that an eruption is so great that it destroys the entire mountain; we know of Mount Mazama (which left behind Crater Lake in Oregon), Santorini (which may have taken out the Minoan civilization and left a great hole in the Aegean) and Krakatoa, the subject of Simon Winchester's brilliant new book, which not only blew up the mountain, it blew up the island the mountain sat on.
Krakatoa was (past tense) located in the Sunda Strait, between the large islands of Sumatra and Java, and composed of three peaks: Rakata, at 2,600 feet; Danan, at nearly 1,500; and Perboewatan, at 400. The volcano began to signal its intentions with violent earthquakes in May 1883. ''It began with a sudden trembling,'' Winchester writes. ''At first it was slight, more of a quivering of the air, a series of windy rumblings, of vague, barely noticeable atmospheric flutterings.'' After three months of rumbling earth tremors, the island blew up with a succession of blasts that could be heard 3,000 miles away. (If Pikes Peak in Colorado had exploded with the same force, every person in the continental United States would have heard it.) There were four detonations over the course of five hours; the last, occurring at 10:02 a.m. local time at Krakatoa on Monday, Aug. 27, 1883, was one of the biggest explosions in recorded history.
Most accounts of volcanic eruptions, including Pliny the Younger's eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius (which killed his uncle, Pliny the Elder), concern themselves with the pyrotechnics of the eruption, the billowing clouds of smoke, molten lava or burning ash rolling down the slopes and, ultimately, the death toll. But Winchester's book is a murder mystery with more than 36,000 victims, and everything in the book -- from the early Dutch settlers, the history of the spice trade in the East Indies, the discovery of the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates and the history of the undersea telegraph -- leads ineluctably to the solution. He tells us not only what happened, where and when; assisted by modern geological theory, he explains why Krakatoa exploded. Many people thought it was the end of the world or the Day of Judgment, but Winchester -- trained as a geologist -- identifies the forces at work within the earth that can (and do) bring about such cataclysms. Although we are still unable to predict when a volcano will erupt, we have managed to acquire at least a partial understanding of the forces that can cause the earth's plates to move, producing the not unrelated seismic phenomena of earthquakes and volcanoes.
At Krakatoa, when the earth split asunder, cold seawater contacted the red-hot magma, the steam exploded with catastrophic violence, and six cubic miles of rock and ash were hurled more than 20 miles into the stratosphere. An hour after the explosions, as lightning stroboscopically lit up the blackening skies, a thick, muddy rain fell on Batavia (now Jakarta). Broiling-hot debris from the blast, some chunks three feet around, fell over hundreds of square miles. Since the island was uninhabited at the time, nobody on Krakatoa was killed, but giant tsunamis rolled out in all directions, flooding the coasts of Java and Sumatra, submerging nearly 300 towns and villages and killing more than 36,000 people. It was as if a mountain-size red-hot rock had been dropped into the ocean. (Indeed, some 65 million years ago, a mountain-size asteroid slammed into what would later be known as the Yucatan peninsula, where, many scientists believe, it wreaked such ecological havoc that the nonavian dinosaurs disappeared forever.)
A 72-foot-high wave engulfed and totally destroyed the town of Telokbetong at the head of Sumatra's Lampong Bay, killing 2,200 people. Water cascaded into the town of Tangerang, and when it swept out again, it carried people, animals, houses and trees. No one expected the waves to return after they had receded. It is likely that many people believed the worst was over and returned to their shoreside villages, only to experience another, more catastrophic, inundation. The town of Merak, which had suffered little damage from the first wave, was destroyed by the second. The huge wave, after traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, entered the narrow bay, and as the shoaling beach slowed down the leading edge of the wave, millions of gallons of water began piling up behind, until the wave reached the astonishing and totally terrifying height of 135 feet, as tall as a 10-story building. This mountain of seething water rolled over Merak, obliterating everything in its path and drowning all but two of its 2,700 inhabitants. Anjer was drowned by a 33-foot wave, and Tyringin, 24 miles from the volcano, was smashed by a 70-foot-high locomotive of roiling water. It was not the lava, noxious gases, flame, smoke or volcanic bombs that destroyed those unfortunate thousands; it was the terrible power of water. In the vast majority of instances death came at the hands of seismic sea waves.
To the accompaniment of thunderous explosions, the wave swept around St. Nicholas Point on Java and headed for Batavia, 94 miles from the epicenter. At approximately 12:15 p.m., two hours after the final explosion, the sea roared into the capital city. It receded, and then came back. Thousands of ships, ranging in size from steamships to small proas, were destroyed in Batavia's harbor. Nine hours after the eruption, many riverboats were swamped and sunk in Calcutta, 2,000 miles away, and ships strained at their anchors at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 5,000 miles from the blast.
What did not remain, Winchester writes, ''was the volcano that had caused it all. . . . Krakatoa, after the final majestic concatenation of seismic and tectonic climaxes that occurred just after 10 on the Monday morning, had simply and finally exploded itself out of existence.'' Where once there had been a tropical peak that was 2,600 feet tall, there was now a hole in the ocean floor that was 1,000 feet deep. Krakatoa's explosion generated a climate-altering ash cloud that produced lurid red, blue, green and copper-colored sunsets, and lowered temperatures around the world.
In 1815, the eruption of the volcano Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, caused the ''year without summer'' in 1816, when so much ash was carried into the upper atmosphere that it blocked the sun; it snowed in Boston in June and a famine spread across parts of Europe. The parallels between today's ''weapons of mass destruction'' and the destructive power of volcanoes are painfully obvious -- both can kill thousands of innocent people -- but Winchester identifies an unforeseen repercussion of the 1883 eruption: the willingness of the Javanese to blame the gods for the destruction of their islands and villages opened the door to Islamic militants, who rapidly gained the hearts and minds of the people, making modern Indonesia the largest Muslim country in the world.
Like its subject, Winchester's book is rife with superlatives. Here is his description of the giant wave that drowned Merak: ''This too was Krakatoa's most colossal wave, the biggest consequence of the biggest and final explosion. It was a wave so enormous and so powerful that it turned out to be the grimmest of grim reapers, the terrible climax to a long and deadly day.'' Krakatoa (the volcano) wasn't the largest or deadliest of recent Indonesian volcanic eruptions. That dubious distinction goes to Tambora, which erupted with more than twice the power of Krakatoa, killed 10,000 people outright and caused the death of another 82,000 by starvation and disease. ''Krakatoa'' (the book) is, also like its subject, deserving of superlatives: It is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.
Richard Ellis is the author of ''Imagining Atlantis'' and ''Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea.''
Supposedly, the explosion of Krakatoa was the loudest sound humans have ever heard.
At the top of this photo you can see part of what is left from the original island. The new cone has been growing for a while now.
Krakatoa ejected about 11 Cubic miles of material.
Tambora in 1815 ejected about 20 Cubic miles of material.
Toba 74,000 years ago ejected about 3,000 Cubic miles of material.
Loud is a subjective term.
When Toba blew, humans were little more than naked savages living in caves.
Where does Thera fall in those statistics (Santorini 1628 BC)?
IMO, Santorini provided all the fireworks for the Exodus. Toba was a 'super-volcano' and the biggest in the last two million years.
There is thought that about the time of Toba the total population of Homo Sapiens on the Earth dropped to less then 50,000 individuals.
Thera ejected about 10 cubic miles of material.
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There was an excellent show on Discovery a few months ago with vivid CGI of the blast effects, the eruption was reported to be 187 decibels.
I just woke up from my nap because I was up all night, got a call from the school that my two grandaughters were having breathing problems and so my daughter had to go pick them up, and right now my eyes are watering and irritated, and I am inside the house, Redoubt is about 140 miles SW of me.