anak_krakatauThe Volcano That Shook the World: Krakatoa 1883
Sunday, August 26, 1883

It was an especially lovely afternoon in Anjer, a small seaside town on the island of Java. Children played on sparkling white beaches. Palm trees whispered in the breeze. Families rested or strolled along the streets. It was not the kind of day anyone would expect disaster to strike.

Then, at about 1:00 p.m., the sudden, sharp crack of an explosion shattered the quiet. All eyes turned west, toward Krakatoa (kra-kuh-TOW-uh), a volcanic island about six miles long and two miles wide.

Krakatoa jutted up 2,625 feet out of the sea. It lay in the Sundra Strait, a stretch of water separating the islands of Java and Sumatra, in the Indian Ocean, in Southeast Asia. Today, both islands are part of Indonesia. In 1883, the islands were Dutch colonies, controlled by the government of the European country the Netherlands.

The volcano of Krakatoa had been quiet, or “dormant”, for 200 years. Then, in May, it had suddenly awakened, with cracklings, explosions, and smoke.

Most sensed that the noises and smoke of this afternoon seemed different from the rumblings of the past few months. But nobody could imagine the catastrophe that was about to overwhelm their beautiful land.

A volcano is a hole in the crust of Earth or other planets. It forms when molten rock, or magma, erupts to the surface, where it is called lava. In a way, you could say that volcanoes are vents. They are the way that planets cool off.

Scientists estimate that there are about 1,500 volcanoes that have erupted in the last 10,000 years. Today, scientists keep a careful watch on “active” volcanoes, and can predict when they will erupt. In 1883, however, little was known about volcanoes. And most of the scientists who did study volcanoes lived in Europe and America, across the earth from the remote land of Krakatoa.

By mid-afternoon, the town of Anjer was enveloped in an eerie darkness. Clouds of smoke had spewed into the air, covering the sun. People could hardly see their hands in front of their faces. Hot ashes rained down. From time to time, a red, fiery glare could be spotted over the volcano.

The seas began to behave strangely. Waves crashed wildly against the shore. In the harbor, churning water tore boats loose from their moorings and dashed them to pieces. The town’s telegraph operator tapped out reports to the city of Batavia (today it is Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital), 100 miles to the east. But at 6:00 p.m. the telegraph cable broke, and the line went dead. The telegraph operator hoped to fix it in the morning. That was not to be.

As the evening wore on, the explosions continued. People began to panic, not only in Anjer but in other small villages and towns in western Java and in southern Sumatra.

In the Sumatran town of Ketimbang, the Beyerinck family, including three children, fled to their summer cottage in the hills. Just before they set off, a wave rose so high they had to scramble up coconut trees to keep from being washed away. After the wave fell back, they raced through muddy fields to what they hoped was safety.

Soaking wet, covered with mud, and shivering with fear, they reached the cottage at midnight. All around, local people huddled together. Throughout that long, terrifying night, everyone wondered: What would the morning bring?

All night long, trading ships in the area were pounded by hot winds full of flying cinders and ash. One captain wrote that the “night was a fearful one…the blinding fall of sand and stones…the sky one second intensely black, the next a blaze of light.” Monday arrived, but dawn never came. Instead, the skies stayed dark. Ash filled the air. Lightning flashed.

As Monday morning wore on, Krakatoa’s eruptions grew more intense. Beginning at 5:30 a.m., three terrible explosions shook the air, generating immense, powerful waves.

Then, at exactly 2 minutes past 10:00 a.m., the unthinkable happened. Krakatoa exploded into nothingness.

Think about the loudest sound you’ve ever heard. Multiply that sound by thousands. Then try, if you can, to imagine the loudest sound in the world — a sound so deafening, an explosion so terrifyingly loud, people more than 2,000 miles away recorded hearing it. Buildings 500 miles away shook.

The violent explosion blew away the volcano and most of the small island it sat upon. Six cubic miles of rock were blasted to smithereens. The eruption sent shock waves speeding around Earth at 700 miles an hour. Clouds of gas, fire, and smoke shot up about 20 miles into the sky.

But this was not the deadliest aspect of the eruption. Underwater, the force of the volcano collapsing gave birth to a giant sea wave, called a tsunami.

Moving out from Krakatoa at 60 miles per hour, the wave bore down on western Java and southern Sumatra. When it reached the villages and towns scattered along the coasts, it broke on shore as a powerful, devastating wall of water more than 100 feet tall.

There are stories of the few people who managed to outrun this giant monster. A Javanese field worker near the town of Merak described what happened: “We…saw a great black thing, a long way off, coming towards us. It was very high and very strong, and we soon saw that it was water. Trees and houses were washed away…Not far off was some steep, sloping ground. We all ran towards it and tried to climb up out of the way of the water. The wave was too quick for most of them, and many were drowned almost at my side.”

Most everyone killed that day died because of water. But experts believe some people on Sumatra died from burns caused by the spewing of hot gas and volcanic particles, called a pyroclastic flow.

Huddled in their cottage above the town of Ketimbang, Mrs. Beyerinck and her family were at the edge of this kind of flow. She described what it was like that Monday morning: “Suddenly it became pitch-dark…I felt a heavy pressure, throwing me to the floor…Then it seemed as if all the air was being sucked away and I could not breathe…the hot bite of the pumice [a light, gas-filled lava] pricked like needles.”

The Beyerincks survived. But 165 towns and villages were destroyed. A total of 36,417 people died from the eruption, making it one of the deadliest in recorded history. Scientists have given the Krakatoa eruption a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6, or “colossal.” Eruptions like this occur only every few hundred years.

Propelled by the enormous force of the explosion, the sea wave fanned out from Krakatoa. On the Thousands Islands, east of the Sundra Strait, residents had to climb trees to save themselves. Hours later and nearly 2,000 miles away, the wave killed a woman in Ceylon (today the Asian country of Sri Lanka), who died after being swept off her feet by water. Twelve hours after the eruption, the wave was recorded at a spot 3,800 nautical miles from Krakatoa, a distance it usually took a steamship 12 days to reach.

The devastating eruption of Krakatoa changed the world’s skies, winds, and weather, not just in the days following the disaster, but for months to come. The dust cloud caused darkness as far as 250 miles away, and close to the volcano, it stayed dark for three days. Volcanic ash and pumice from the eruptions covered parts of the nearby islands, making it difficult for plants to grow for several years. Ash fell on Singapore, 525 miles away.

Ash and other particles from Krakatoa entered Earth’s atmosphere and circled the equator in about 13 days. Months later, volcanic dust and ash in the upper atmosphere reached northern latitudes, causing violently red sunsets. In November, three months after the eruption, firefighters in Poughkeepsie, New York, raced to what they thought was a blazing red fire. It turned out to be only “a peculiar light” in the sky — light caused by particles of Krakatoa’s eruption in the atmosphere.

The volcano of Krakatoa blasted itself out of existence that day in August. It caused horrific loss of life, and one of the largest explosions on Earth in recorded history. It was also the first catastrophe reported immediately throughout the world, thanks to undersea telegraph cables. For the first time, people on different continents could communicate almost instantly.

KRAKATOA Died that Day, in 1883. Or Did It?
Before the eruption, the island of Krakatoa was 14 miles long. The eruption on August 26 spewed billions and billions of tons of rock into the air and destroyed all but a small part of the island. In 1926, a new volcano appeared from under the water. It is called Anak Krakatoa, which means “child of Krakatoa.” Someday, this child may be as dangerous as its parent.

Deborah Hopkinson. Storyworks. New York: Jan 2004. Vol. 11, Iss. 4; pg. 8