- Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- Year: 2005
- Pages: 464
I’ve been familiar with Simon Winchester only for his two books about the Oxford English Dictionary, namely The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. I’d made the lazy assumption that Winchester major field of interest was, therefore, dictionaries and language in general. It wasn’t until I picked up Krakatoa that I noticed his bibliography is not only voluminous, but multifarious as well, spanning people, major events, and obviously major publications.
For no particular reason, I happened the other day to be reading reviews of the 1997 film Volcano and its contemporary Dante’s Peak, both summer-blockbuster volcano movies, the latter of which fared slightly better under the critical scorn of volcanologists and the commonsensical layperson, but the former of which was typical studio schlock which played fast and loose with geophysics. Strangely enough, movies like this manage to sell volcanoes short on both ends: despite the way in which the volcano becomes the morbid, leering central actor, they tend to underportray the sheer destructive force and—perhaps even more importantly—the long reach of eruptive effect; at the same time, the caricatured bogeyman the volcano becomes also exaggerates the long build-up and subtle characteristics that are often more important than the loud bang at the end.
The talents of a journalist like Winchester, however, afford us some assurance that the August 27, 1883 explosion of Krakatoa in modern Indonesia, won’t be a tawdry affair. In fact, in keeping proper reverence for the fundamental idea of volcanic eruptions building up over time, Winchester spends no mean amount of time describing everything but Krakatoa. He begins with a history of geology and biology, covering the gradual discovery of tectonic plates, continental drifting, and other mechanistic things which are the ultimate cause of volcanic activity. This is more involved than you might think, and while Winchester’s treatment of geological history isn’t exhaustive1, it has invests enough time and supposes enough intellectual curiosity on the part of its readers to avoid thrift with details. It’s followed by a brief history of the acquisition of the Java and Sumatra islands by the Dutch, whose colonial holdings had by this point been otherwise taken by force.
The eruption of Krakatoa is, of course, the pièce de résistance, and while there’s plenty to be said about its violent, fiery throes, the eruption itself was largely as we might expect. On the day when the dam finally broke2, the power of the explosion completely disintegrated the small island of Krakatoa, hurled enormous amounts of ash fifty miles into the air, created tsunamis that wiped out whole villages, and generated a soundwave that was heard as far away as Australia. The official reporting by the occupying Dutch tallied the death toll at 36’417.
Less morbid and exciting but potentially more interesting is the notion that the shockwave from Krakatoa’s final eruption actually reverberated across the global a total of seven times, as though the entire planet was a too-small room and Krakatoa was a bad rock band with a souped-up amp. Think for a minute about the sort of power required to generate a shockwave that will not only traverse the entire planet, but do so seven times. It’s easy for us to visualize the pyroclastic flows (lava), or even the blast of smoke and dash and debris from the summit of a conical volcano (your vanilla science fair variety), but it’s beyond the pale of our imagination and/or intellect to appreciate the scale of forces involved. In a culture wherein a “atomic bomb” is the ne plus ultra of large and destructive forces, does the notion that Krakatoa was equivalent to 13’000 of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima have any real meaning?
Winchester’s tactic, then, is not necessarily to impress upon us the exceptional scale of Krakatoa (though he does that, too), but rather to explain why Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption is important.
It’s not the first; it’s not the last. 1883 is not the first time that the island of Krakatoa or some geological variant of it has erupted; there have been as many as three eruptions in recorded history, and potentially more before that, but we have no real way of knowing. Even more importantly, we can rest assured that despite the apparent finality and resolution with which the island exploded in 1883, the volatile nature of the tectonic plates in that region assure us the formation of more islands and, almost invariably, more eruptions. Out of the metaphorical and potentially literal ashes of Krakatoa have risen its successor island, Anak Krakatoa3, which grows 5cm per week. Further eruptions are not a speculation, in fact, as the region has experienced recorded volcanic activity in the intervening years; nothing, however, has come close to matching the 1883 eruption for size or violence.
It was the first major volcanic eruption to occur when relatively fast world-wide communication was a possibility. More important to Winchester, in keeping with his theme of Krakatoa’s eruption as a signal event in a perfect storm of scientific progress, is to point out that Krakatoa’s eruption was the first major calamity to occur in the age of the telegraph. News of the eruption was to reach the Western world (e.g., England, and its papers) within days, which sounds slow in modern terms but was a major achievement for the time. Britain, among other nations, had developed by this point a scientific culture which reacted swiftly to the news (noting, among other things, that their barographs registered the shockwave), even if the geological science which would explain the volcanic liveliness of the region wouldn’t come to fruition for many more years; Though the idea was proposed as early as the 16th century, it wasn’t formalized in any real sense until Alfred Wegener formalized the theory in 1912; even then, the hypothesis was popularly dismissed as nonsense until as recently as the 1950s!
It would be all too easy for the story of Krakatoa be given as a list of casualties, or a loosely-coupled succession of horror stories. This would be, irrespective of its gravity and however accurate, somewhat puerile and narrow in its scope. Though the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa remains the king of the hill in some respects—it’s believe to be the loudest sound in modern history, for instance—it is definitionally not unique. It is fair to say that Krakatoa’s death-spasm simply happened to occur at a particular interesting point in the history of humanity, and our reaction to and presence proximate to this event says every bit as much about our species as it does about volcanology.
- Bryson’s in A Short History of Nearly Everything has a more involved history of geology, though admittedly not volcanology.[↩]
- It’s believed that the ultimate paroxysm of the volcano was due to a large volume of seawater breaking through some crust of earth and coming into contact with a large volume of magma; the resulting conversion of water to steam was so sudden and so large as to literally blow the top off the island. This potential cause of volcanic eruption was already well-known, or at least theorized, by this point, as Jules Verne uses it in his 1874 The Mysterious Island[↩]
- Literally, “child of Krakatoa”[↩]