The Krakatoa Eruption touched people around the world. It remained relatively quiet for roughly 200 years until it started grumbling in May 1883 when the captain of the German ship Elizabeth noted a plume rising six miles into the sky from its cone. At 12:53 p.m. on Sunday August 26, Krakatoa (a.k.a. Krakatau) began its violent self-destruction.
By the next day, more than 35,000 lives were lost. The volcano hurled an estimated 11 cubic miles of debris into the atmosphere that resulted in dramatic skies worldwide for many months. Some people believed the world was coming to an end. Others looked to the science for explanation. Writers and artists inspired by the Victorian Era Krakatoa Eruption quickly documented the phenomenal displays.
Krakatoa sits in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. The horrific news of its transformation travelled quickly by the standards of pre-tweet Victorian Era communication. The first permanent Transatlantic Cable had been placed successfully in 1866 setting the stage for a worldwide telegraphic network. The resulting “instant communication” allowed the Dutch Java-Bode to publish stories of the great disaster on the day it began. International media followed quickly and the eruption became a global event.
The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, West Virginia:
August 30, 1883, Fires of Inferno-Stirred By The Demons of Death-Convulse the Volcanoes of Java That Vomit Forth the Flames of Disaster and Joined by the Maddened Sea Sweep Thousands of People Into Eternity
London, August 29, 1883. A dispatch from Batavia, Java, says the towns of Anger, Tjiringener and Tolokobelong were destroyed by volcanic eruptions. All the lighthouses in Dunda Straits have disappeared, and where the mountain of Kramatia formerly stood the sea now flows. The aspect of Sunda Straits is much changed and navigation is dangerous. The tidal wave completely destroyed Anger, Many persons were killed and the loss of life at North Bantam is enormous. The latest advices show that the volcanic eruptions in this island are much more serious than at first indicated.…
TIDAL WAVES: On Sunday morning the disturbances had extended beneath the waters of the Strait, and they were soon boiling and hissing violently, while great waves dashed upon the Javanese shores and the temperature of the sea went up nearly 20 degrees. Even as far from the original point of disturbance as Madura the furious waves were lashed into mountains of foam as they came rolling in. the threatening rumblings gradually became more and more distinct, and by noon the Maha Meru, the largest of the volcanoes of Java was belching forth flames at a very alarming rate. This eruption soon spread to the Gunung Tengger, the crater of which is the largest in the world, being nearly four miles in diameter, the Gunung Guntar and may other minor mountains until more than a third of the forty-five craters of Java were either in active eruption or seriously threatening it.”
The Sun (New York) Aug 28, 1883
The eruption made the paper’s front page, but it was given only two paragraphs below the fold with the headline: Java Badly Shaken Up. Apparently, they missed the memo that 30,000 plus lives were lost and most of the island disappeared.
The Illustrated London News published articles and drawings of the region before the devastation. Their first-person accounts illuminated the catastrophe.
Krakatoa measured 6 out of 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (vei) established in 1982. Scientists have compared its blast to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. According to nasa.gov, Krakatoa’s explosions were heard nearly 400 miles away. Plumes of ash rose to the top of Earth’s atmosphere, making the moon appear blue.
“Some of the ash-clouds were filled with particles about 1 micron (one millionth of a meter) wide–the right size to strongly scatter red light, while allowing other colors to pass. White moonbeams shining through the clouds emerged blue, and sometimes green.”
Blue moons were seen for years after the eruption.
“People also saw lavender suns and, for the first time, noctilucent clouds.”
According to nasa.org, the vast volcanic ash cloud also triggered shocking sunsets. The sky was so red one night in New York that fire engines were called to put out what appeared to be a huge fire in the distance.
The volcanic haze meandered westward on jet streams and then outwards from the tropics to the poles. By late October to the end of 1883 most of the world was witnessing flaming evening skies caused by the Krakatoa’s haze. In some locations there were reports of volcanic sunsets continuing for several years.
For years after the eruption, unusual phenomena were reported in the global press. World temperatures dropped by 1.2 degrees C. Effects on weather and temperature lasted until 1888. Southern California had what became known as the “water year” until the following summer of 1884. San Diego had nearly 26 inches of rain and Los Angeles had nearly 40 inches.
For the first time the effects of such an eruption on global geography and climate could be measured and analyzed. The Royal Society of London formed a special Krakatoa committee to collate and synthesize the glut of data and other information.
Artists were among those mesmerized by the Krakatoa sunsets. Following are a few favorites.
William Ashcroft-Without a cell phone camera or even accessible colored photography, British artist William Ashcroft frantically painted pastel after pastel. He caught the fading light as each sunset transformed through 1886 from his vantage on the Thames in Chelsea. The collection was published by the Royal Society and included in their report on the Victorian Era Krakatoa Eruption.
Gerard Manley Hopkins –People around the world were awed by the nightly shows but few knew what was causing them. Gerard Manley Hopkins relied on his words to document daily atmospheric displays. His 2,000-word essay was published in Nature, the science journal in January 1884. Following is a sample of his masterful blend of science and poetry.
“Above the green in turn appeared a red glow, broader and burlier in make; it was softly brindled, and in the ribs or bars the color was rosier, in the channels where the blue of the sky shone through it was a mallow color. Above this was a vague lilac. The red was first noticed 45º above the horizon, and spokes or beams could be seen in it, compared by one beholder to a man’s open hand. By 4.45 the red had driven out the green, and, fusing with the remains of the orange, reached the horizon…”
Edvard Munch-Although experts disagree, some believe Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, was inspired by his memory of a blood-red Krakatoa sunset.
“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
After report of Krakatoa’s activity in May 1883, sightseers and commercial vessels flocked to the strait to witness natural fireworks in the night sky accompanied by thundering noises and glowing clouds. People on nearby islands celebrated the volcano’s activity until Aug. 27. Scientists organized geological expeditions to document the volcano and gather samples of volcanic rocks.
Following is from the dramatic account of Captain Watson of the ship Charles Ball:
“The night was a fearful one: the blinding fall of sand and stones, the intense blackness above and around us, broken only by the incessant glare of varied kinds of lightning, and the continued explosive roars of Krakatoa made our situation a truly awful one.
“At eleven P.M., having stood off from the Java shore, with the wind strong from the S. W., the island, being W. N. W. distant eleven miles, became visible. Chains of fire appeared to ascend and descend between it and the sky, while on the S. W. end there seemed to be a continued roll of balls of white fire. The wind, though strong, was hot and choking, sulphurous, with a smell as of burning cinders, some of the pieces falling on us being like iron cinders. The lead came up from the bottom at thirty fathoms quite warm.
“At 11.15 [a.m] there was a fearful explosion in the direction of Krakatoa, then over thirty miles distant. We saw a wave rush right on to the Button island, apparently sweeping entirely over the southern part, and rising half-way up the north and east sides, fifty or sixty feet, and then continuing on to the Java shore. This was evidently a wave of translation, and not of progression, for it was not felt at the ship. This we saw repeated twice, but the helmsman said he saw it once before we looked. At the same time the sky rapidly covered in; the wind came out strong from S. W. to S., and by 11.30 A. M. we were enclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt; and then commenced a downpour of mud, sand, and I know not what…”
At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks, and although speaking to each other on the poop, yet we could not see each other. This horrible state and downpour of mud and debris continued until 1.30 P.M., the roaring and lightning from the volcano being something fearful. By two P.M. we could see some of the yards aloft, and the fall of mud ceased; by five P.M. the horizon showed out to the northward and eastward, and we saw West Island bearing E. by N., just visible. Up to midnight the sky hung dark and heavy, a little sand falling at times, and the roaring of the volcano very distinct, although we were fully seventy-five miles from Krakatoa.”
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