The Krakatoa eruption of 1883

Updated: Feb 29, 2020



I’ve had a fascination with volcanoes since I was young. There’s something so intriguing about a mountain that is both so beautiful and deadly. Every human life cut short is a tragedy, of course, but volcanic eruptions can cause devastation that rivals even the worst mass murders. This is the story of an eruption so big, it literally changed the map. This is the Krakatoa eruption of 1883

Krakatoa is, or was, an active volcano on an island chain in the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. Indonesia is on two tectonic plates and has over 100 active volcanoes. There’s evidence of Krakatoa eruptions hundreds of years ago, maybe even one as early as 6600 BC. But other than the odd sailor or two, maybe even a small village in the 1700’s*, the island has been uninhabited for most of its history. So even if these eruptions were significant, they didn’t cause much human devastation. All that would change in 1883.

On May 20, the captain of a German warship reported seeing a cloud of ash and dust 6.8 miles (11 km) high coming from the island. Over the next three months, more witnesses spotted ash clouds and heard loud noises in the area. By August 11, most of the forests on Krakatoa had been destroyed, and the dust cloud on the shore was about 20 inches thick.

Still, life in the area continued as usual. At this time, Krakatoa hadn’t erupted in over 200 years. Residents of nearby Java and Sumatra were accustomed to the frequent earthquakes that plagued the area, and didn’t pay much attention to them. They had no idea what was about to happen.

The biggest — and most known — eruption began on August 26, 1883. One source said it started as early as 6 am, but most said it started around midday. During the first few hours, the volcanic debris rose to a height of 22 miles (36 km). The ash cloud went up nearly 50 miles (80 km). 200 feet of ash and pumice accumulated on the other islands in the chain. The force of the eruption was about 10,000 times greater than hydrogen bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima 62 years later. The eruption also cause the loudest noise ever recorded, and was heard on Rodrigues Island, over 2,800 miles away. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of a sound in New York being heard in Los Angeles.

About 3,000 people died in the initial eruption — mostly from volcanic material like pyroclastic flows and falling tephra. Tephra is material ejected from a volcano during an eruption — usually things like ash and dust. Pyroclastic flows are created from hot gases as well as hot rock fragments and can move as fast as 100 miles (160 km) per hour, exceeding temperatures of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius). Pyroclastic flows created after the eruption of Krakatoa travelled through the nearby Sunda Strait and destroyed villages and vegetation on Sumatra.

The biggest eruptions would end the next day, August 27, but it was nowhere near over. In fact, in terms of human casualties, the worst was yet to come.

Back in 1815, the population of Java was about 5 million. But by the early 1900’s, it had grown to about 140 million. I’m not entirely sure what it was in 1883 but, needless to say, there were quite a few people living there. And 90 % of the deaths attributed to the Krakatoa eruption would come with the tsunamis.

I couldn’t find exactly how many tsunamis there were in the coming weeks. But an estimated 36,000 people died in as a result of the 100 foot waves, most of these people living on Java or Sumatra. Many nearby islands were completely submerged, and islands as far as 50 miles (80 km) away were affected by the tsunamis. At least one ship was capsized, killing everyone on board. Floating debris was reported by sailors up to 4,970 miles (8,000 km) away.

Relief ships waited days, sometimes weeks to get to Java and Sumatra due to debris left behind from the eruption and ensuing tsunamis. Interestingly, though, ships in the Sundra Strait, which had endured so much devastation already, were unaffected.

In the end, the result of this eruption was devastating. The northern 2/3rds of the main island was blown away, leaving the land mass significantly smaller than before. The volcano’s highest point now stood about about 2,500 feet (762 meters), whereas before the eruption it had been 6,000 feet (1828 meters). The region around the volcano was completely dark for two days, and smaller eruptions continued for the next year. Plant and animal life on what remained of the island was completely wiped out and didn’t come back for about five years.

But some consequences of the eruption were more unusual than devastating. You may be familiar with the term ‘once in a blue moon.’ If you’re not, it refers to something that doesn’t happen very often. Usually the phrase is metaphorical. But after Krakatoa’s eruption, dust in the air created rings around the sun and moon that could be seen around the world. Ash in the air also caused the moon to appear various shades of blue and green for years afterward. And it didn’t just affect the moon. It also caused sunsets to be so brightly red that firefighters in New York were often contacted.

Today, in the year 2019, information can be spread within literal seconds. If I want to communicate with someone, whether they’re down the street or on the other side of the world, I can pull out my phone or get on my computer and send that message easily. Because technology has progressed so fast, especially over the course of my lifetime, it can be hard to remember that even back in 1883, people weren’t exactly living in the stone age.

After the Krakatoa eruption, underwater telegraphs helped spread the word about the disaster quickly. It was considered one of the first global media events, and prompted the first modern scientific study of a volcanic eruption. Shortly after, a committee was assembled by the Royal Society in the United Kingdom. Not being from the U.K., I’d never heard of them before researching for this video. But apparently they’re still around, and serve as the oldest national scientific society in the world. In 1888, they released their official report on the eruption. The over 600 page document contains maps, photographs and artist renditions, as well as information on the events and details surrounding the eruption, eyewitness reports and unusual phenomena brought on by the eruption, such as the aforementioned ‘blue moons.’ Like I said, it’s quite long, but the entire thing is online if you want to look at it yourself.

On December 29, 1927, fishermen reported some sort of eruptions coming from the sea where Krakatoa had been. By 1930, a new volcano had been formed. Dubbed Anak Krakatau, or “son of Krakatoa,” this volcano emerged from the same spot as its predecessor and has been steadily growing ever since. As of me writing this, it’s about 1,300 feet high and fairly active. So-called “eruptive events” have been reported as recently as September 2019. I’m writing this in September 2019, so if you’re watching this any time in the future, that’s probably been updated. Geologists think the volcano will actually erupt one day, though an eruption as bad as the one of 1883 probably won’t happen in our lifetime.

The 1883 Krakatoa eruption has been the subject of way too many movies, documentaries and other media to name here. But there are a few I did want to mention by name. The first one is Krakatoa: The Last Days, a BBC docudrama that aired on the network in 2006. It was also aired in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel as Krakatoa: Volcano of Destruction. I can’t find any sort of legal way to watch the movie online, but there is a 10 minute clip floating around.

Another is Krakatoa Revealed, an actual documentary on the disaster. It seems to have originally aired in the same year as Krakatoa: The Last Days, so I assume they were made in conjunction with one another. There’s also an episode of the National Geographic show Naked Science about the eruption that you can watch on YouTube.

One other book I want to mention is Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester*. It’s a pretty thick, heavy book and goes into way more detail about the history and aftermath of the island and eruptions than I could ever dream of going into here. One chapter I found especially interesting dealt with the political and religious tensions that followed the eruption, some elements of which were even inspired by it. If you’re interested in the book, you can order it here*.

On January 22, 1892, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch gave a prose account of an ordinary walk that turned into something very interesting:

"I was walking along the road with two friends—then the Sun set—all at once the sky became blood red—and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired—clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature."

Later that year, Munch began working on a painting inspired by this sunset. The most famous version of this painting, dubbed ‘The Scream’, was painted the following year. It’s been theorized that this painting, now one of the most well known in the world, was inspired by a bright red sunset that occurred as a result of Krakatoa’s eruption.

The eruption also served as at least partial inspiration for the game Frostpunk. Released for PC in 2018 and set to come to Xbox One and Playstation 4 in October, the game has sold over 1 million copies in its first year of release. It takes place in an alternate history and begins in 1886. In this timeline, the world has been plunged into a long winter, created partially by the Krakatoa eruption as well as the eruption of Mount Tambora, also in Indonesia, which had a catastrophic eruption in 1815. I tend to play more action/adventure oriented games, so I hadn’t heard of this “city survival” game before. But it does sound like an even darker version of The Sims, which I do enjoy. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever played before, and how much of Krakatoa’s history it incorporates or changes.

So that’s just about all I have on the devastating Krakatoa eruption of 1883. I’ve only scratched the surface of what happened here; if I went into as much detail as I could, we’d be here all day. But, as always, all my sources are below so you can do further reading if this is something that interests you. Let me know your thoughts on this event in the comments below.

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