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Brought to you by Discovery Channel's Krakatoa: Volcano of Destruction
The volcano had announced its intentions months earlier. In May 1883, a steady bellowing of thunder, crackling and tremors could be felt in the islands of the Sunda Strait. The air took on a distinctly sulfurous smell and layers of ash began to drift from the sky. Residents of nearby islands heard distant booms; windows rattled and smoke rose from Rakata Island. This was only a preface. The events to follow would create a new synonym for catastrophe: Krakatoa.
On August 27, 1883 the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history took place on the Krakatoa Islands. Located between Java and Sumatra, the islands themselves owed their existence to a massive eruption early in the 5th century AD. In the wake of the 1883 eruption over 36,000 lay dead and the entire island detonated with a force unknown in the pre-atomic age. Krakatoa, which stood some 6000 feet above sea level on August 26th, had simply ceased to exist twenty-four hours later. Some three-quarters of the island had been blasted away or sank beneath the ocean into the crater where the volcano once stood. The eruption bundled together a catalogue of individual disasters: massive explosions, earthquakes, toxic clouds of superheated ash and gasses, and a tsunami whose 140 foot waves decimated 165 villages in the region. A ship in a nearby bay was lifted by the ensuing tidal wave and deposited two miles inland. A volcanic hail of stones rained from the sky while shrouds of ash turned the daytime sky pitch black.
Few events in nature parallel the sheer destructive capacity of volcanic eruption. Their life spans range from a few months to millions of years. The whole of human history is dotted with evidence of their spectacular power. The islands of Hawaii were created by volcanic activity far below the Pacific Ocean and Yellowstone Park rests inside a caldera some 30 miles wide and 45 miles long created by a massive eruption 600,000 years ago. In 79 AD, Vesuvius interred the ancient city of Pompeii in a veil of ash so thick that the city remained buried for the next 1,600 years.
Volcanoes are born at the points where the tectonic plates beneath the earth's surface slip beneath each other forcing magma up toward the crust. Though there are several varieties of volcano they share the common trait as an outlet for the superheated materials working their way toward the surface. It is believed that a fissure created by the May eruption allowed water from the ocean to pour into the underground chambers where magma was collecting. For three months the steam gathered inside the chamber, seething and generating pressure within the mountain. Modern scientists could have seen the impending eruption by gauging the seismic activity or measuring the volume and content of the gasses released by the volcano. In some cases, like that of Mount St. Helen's in Oregon, the sides of the mountain bulge with portent before massive release. These technologies didn't exist in 1883 and no one could predict the scale of the destruction Krakatoa was preparing to unleash.
Had you been witness to her eruption, you would have heard the loudest sound recorded by human ears prior to the 20th century. The blast was heard in Australia and India; its victims would wash up on shores in Zanzibar. You would have seen a sky illumined by geological fireworks as radiant orange chunks of stone were ejected and smelled air heavy with ash and charred earth.
A British naval captain whose ship was sailing through the strait, captain reported that Chains of fire appeared to ascend and descend between it and the sky, while on the southwest end there seemed to be a continued roll of balls of white fire. The wind, though strong, was hot and choking, sulfurous, with a smell as of burning cinders, some of the pieces falling on us being like iron cinders*.
Krakatoa's eruption generated a shockwave that traveled the earth seven times. The tons of ash propelled into the sky generated climactic changes as particles blocked sunlight and reduced temperatures. Created by volcanic eruption, the island was destroyed by the same geological forces. For a half-century the ravaged remnant of the island stood as a testament to the volcano's explosive fury.
But the cycle does not end here.
In 1927 a volcanic peak began to rise from the ocean where part of Rakata Island had once been. It now stands 2600 feet above sea level.
Its name: Anak Krakatoa. The child of Krakatoa.
*Recorded in Atlantic Monthly, September 1884.
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