Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Krakatoaby Brad Nelson   5/2/14
First ask yourself one question: How much do I really need to know about a volcano that lies halfway around the world? Well, speaking as a guy, there are three main interests of the species: chicks, cars (“computers” is an acceptable answer), and blowing things up. And in terms of blowing things up, this is as big as it gets.

In Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, you’ll learn what happens when you suddenly explode 6 cubic miles of volcano into the air (although much of it was thought to have collapsed beneath the sea as well). A previous book by Simon Winchester has been mentioned here, The Professor and the Madman. That was also an interesting read.

But this book isn’t just about stuff blowing up. Krakatoa is a bullet point in a larger story which starts with the colonization (mainly by the Dutch) of the Java and Sumatra region of the east Indian ocean, spurred by the trade in spices. (Which ones? Well, you’ll read about that as well).

Along with details about Dutch colonialism, you’ll also read many tales of the early interest of scientists in this region, quite apart from any interest in the dozens of spectacular volcanoes. There’s a good chapter chronicling Alfred Russel Wallace’s observations of the distinct fauna of the Indonesian Archipelago. And Wallace was basically Darwin without a good publicist. He arguable formulated the theory of evolution before Darwin.

And you’ll get a glimpse into the strange and inexplicable world as seen through the eyes of an age before plate tectonics was discovered. Why did volcanoes do what they did? Nobody knew. Many of these advances in science came as slowly as the plates that grind against each other to create the amazing and dangerous subduction zones where volcanoes are born and fed.

The scope of this book is fairly wide and you can consider it a good primer in the history of the region in and around the fatal date of April 27, 1883, where in Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, at precisely 10:02 in the morning, there was the greatest explosion in human history, thousands of times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (and preceded that day by three other humongous explosions). The last, and fatal (to the volcano and to the people surrounding it) explosion was so loud, it was heard three thousand miles away. The book stated that if you were within eighty or so miles of it, you would have gone instantly deaf.

It takes a while for the book to get to the actual event. But when it does, Winchester gives a chilling and well-researched account of what it was like to witness this event. Most bizarre and awesome of all were the many witnesses who saw the entire sea in the straight change level. It boggles the mind.

Over 35,000 lives were lost (with estimates up to 100,000), and I’m left thinking that it could have been worse. The titanic forces operating in and beneath that volcano were (and perhaps still are) indescribably powerful. Even now over the remnants of Krakatoa grows Anak Krakatoa (son of Krakatoa). And it’s growing fairly rapidly.

The hot ash and pumice killed perhaps a 1000. Most of the others will killed by the tremendous waves…waves (up to 130 feet high) whose remnants showed definite bulges in the tides as far away as France. There was also a compression wave (separate from the sound waves) that circled the world 7 or 8 times for about 15 days. Such changes in barometric pressure were recorded all over the world. Nothing such as this had ever been recorded before. It was likened at the time to an earthquake in the atmosphere.

But the book might be a bit of a chore. There is a lot of background information. If you’re up for an overall history, one that touches on the history of the region and the evolution of science itself (and the fallout — literal and figurative, in regards to the politics of the region — after the eruption), then you’ll enjoy this. It takes a while to get to the actual eruption but you’ll find it worth it if you like being immersed in this history of a region and various esoterica. And it’s a bargain at $8.89 for the Kindle. • (2163 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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12 Responses to Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Oh, it certainly could have been worse. Krakatoa was nowhere near as powerful a volcanic eruption as Tambora (which led to The Year Without a Summer), and perhaps also the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. What’s waiting underneath Yellowstone could be a few orders of magnitude worse.

    I don’t think I have this, but naturally I’ve seen it. (My natural morbidity includes a fascination with disasters, among many other things.) I do recall getting a book on Krakatoa a few years back, but I think it was by someone else and in any case I haven’t gotten around to reading it, nor do I know where it is. (There are problems when you buy as many books as I do.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      If I recall, Tambora let out 11 cubic miles of affluence. Krakatoa was 6. And this book has some information on that eruption as well. Both altered the weather of the planet for a short time by at least 1 degree centigrade. And both provided beautiful sunsets for months, if not years, afterward because of all the dust in the upper atmosphere.

      The whole subduction zone where the Indo-Australian Plate (heavy oceanic material) and Eurasian plate (light continental material) meet is a carnival of trouble. The oceanic material (being heavier) sinks beneath the lighter continental plate as they meet (driven by convection currents of the mantle which is leftover heat from the formation of the earth combined with heat generated by radioactive decay). In the process of diving underneath, the oceanic plate slices off pieces of the continental plate and takes it down with it creating a strange brew.

      Also mixed in with this brew is sea water and sediment. The seawater helps to lubricate the plates and lowers the melting point of the rock, adding to the volcanism. The seawater and the sediment (which both contain gases) add to the explosive nature of the brew and is why the volcanoes in Hawaii, for example, are so tame. Those eruptions are comprised of the relative tame, non-carbonated (as it were), oceanic material that runs like maple syrup instead of being a sticky goo of the type in and around Java that is prone to getting stopped up and plugged up, and explosively driven by the gases.

      Adding to the perfusion of volcanoes along subduction zones is that the lighter continental plate, weakened by the infusion of water and other crud dragged underneath it by the oceanic plate, makes it easier for the magma to find its way to the surface.

      A relatively simple process, easy to describe, but with often cataclysmic results.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Krakatoa was nowhere near as powerful a volcanic eruption as Tambora

    If I recall correctly, the reason the Krakatau (the Indonesia name) explosion was so powerful, was not that the volcanic explosion itself was so great, ala Mt. Tambora. Rather is was due to Krakatau’s location in the Sunda Strait. Apparently, after one of the explosions the volcanic island collapsed in on itself and with it millions of tons of seawater which became super heated almost immediately. And this resulted in the big bang. Anyone who has been around a vat of molten metal into which, even a tablespoon of water drips, will understand the power released. It is extremely dangerous.

  3. steve lancaster says:

    Santorini or Thera is likely responsible for the destruction of Minoan civilization. As catastrophic as most volcanos are they seldom reach the scope of the destruction of an entire culture. I wonder when Yellowstone goes will it destroy American culture?

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I’ve mentioned Harry Turtledove’s take on that before (currently 2 books, and America has certainly taken a very bad hit, though not yet completely destroying the society as a whole). There was also another book on it that I heard of at a panel a couple of years back, but it was from a small press and I haven’t seen it. (Apparently it was set in Iowa, the author saying at the panel that no one closer would survive. Turtledove’s version isn’t quite that devastating.)

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      One theory I’ve heard about the extinction of the dinosaurs by the asteroid that hit the Yucatan peninsula at the end of the Cretaceous is that this may have been the event that pushed the dinosaurs over the edge. They may have already been stressed by apparently gigantic volcanism in and around India.

      I don’t know what the state of the science is on that, but our civilization is already being stressed by the pervasive smog of Marxist/Progressivism/socialism. If Yellowstone erupts, it might simply push us over the edge but not be enough in itself to destroy our civilization.

      But it’s unlikely that Yellowstone will have that chance. I expect in the next 50 years that Islamic jihadists will successfully detonate an EMP bomb over Europe or America. That would do the trick. In normal times, we might pull through. But the core goodness (if not just the will to survive) has been eroded from Western Civilization by Cultural Marxism.

      A story I had not heard before was contained in this book, and it’s relevant to this topic. Islam had infected the Java/Sumatra area centuries before, dating from about the 1400’s or so. But according to the author, it was a milder form. It had adopted many of the native customs – including women walking around bare-breasted, something Islam proper would never allow.

      The Dutch weren’t the most fair or humane colonialists. At some point, one fellow wrote an expose on what was actually happening in the colonies in Java. And this was in stark contrast to what people back home in The Netherlands generally supposed was happening. People supposed that their government and colonial corporations were sharing the benefits of civilization, and the profits of the spice trade, with the natives. But it was more of a master/servant relationship where the people (similar to the developing Democrat Party) were simply kept as worker-bees. There was little spent on hospitals, schools, etc. The natives had no freedom to travel. They had to ask permission to travel outside their native villages, and it was usually not granted…at least according to this author who didn’t seem particularly like a left wing wacko.

      The agricultural arrangement the Dutch had with the natives seemed to be fairly one-sided as well. And whether all this is true or not true – and even if true whether the natives would have been better off anyway – what happened is that “radical” (that is, true) Islam took root after the explosion of Krakatoa. It was helped along by one of the famous “prophets” there who had previously predicted that Allah would one day show his displeasure by just the sort of things that happened – volcanoes, “blood” falling from the sky, killer waves, famine, etc. This was an especially powerful prophecy because the natives had long imbued the volcanoes with magical properties.

      So there was an uprising five years after the eruption of Krakatoa, spurred on by a steady marketing campaign by radical Islam. And the chilling front end of this radicalization was two isolated stabbings of white people in and around Java around 1888, five years after the eruption. You can see Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, and other such things as the leading edge of the manic and murderous spear of the degenerate religion of Islam.

      In the uprising, the Moslems who took part would look similar to pictures of today. It was a bloodlust unleashed that even the Nazis or Stalin couldn’t exceed in quality, although surely they did in quantity. Islam, as Churchill said, is a mad dog.

      And it’s not that the natives didn’t have a beef with the colonists. They did. But should that include hacking to death women and children?

      Anyway, thanks to reforms that the Dutch instituted, things went back to normal fairly soon. But the author says the seeds for Indonesia’s eventually independence were laid in that 1888 bloodlust whose foundations were laid by the disruption and devastation caused by Krakatoa. I’m not sure what the state of Indonesia is today in regards to Islam, but one wonders if a better colonialist, and a better relationship with a colonial power, would have provided a better future than to be stuck backward under Islam.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Well, independence was going to come, and probably roughly when it did; that simply was the spirit of the times (intensified in those areas occupied by Japan). A better government might have led to slightly better results, but apparently Indonesia is actually (for the most part) one of the milder Muslim states (and in fact there are some areas dominated by other religions, such as Hinduism on Bali and Christianity on some of the smaller islands).

        Incidentally, a novel making some use of Krakatoa is The Prize by Irving Wallace. The Literature prizewinner (and main protagonist), Andrew Craig, had written a book about someone on Krakatoa as the eruption approached as a parable about the atomic bomb. (Wallace was a liberal, but from a time when this could include staunch anti-communism.)

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          Islam in Indonesia is quite different from the Pakistani or Middle Eastern sort. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fanatics in Indonesia, but that the majority of Indonesian Muslims are not nearly so energetic in their adherence to Islam. Islam first hit the shores of Ache in northern Sumatra during the 12th century. It was probably brought by Arab or South Asian traders. It took some centuries to move East and in fact was not yet fully established in places like Borneo, Bali (where Hinduism is still influential) the Celebes and the Philippine archipelago when the Spaniards arrived in the area. If I recall correctly, some local rulers and populations finally converted to Islam as a counter to the fight against Spanish colonialism.

          As to the violent tendencies of the Bumi Putra (Putera) it is interesting to note that the term, “to run amok” comes from Bahasa Malayu (Malaysian). I am not at all sure that the action which this describes in due to Islam. The proclivity might have been their long before Islam hit S.E. Asian shores.

  4. steve lancaster says:

    The USGS is reporting that magma levels in St. Helen’s are on the rise but not to eruption levels yet.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I hadn’t heard about that. But that’s no surprise. I don’t watch the TV news anymore, nor do I read the local papers. In fact, I was just reading the headlines of the local newspaper at the checkout line at the supermarket and at the top of page one was a big headline about an environmental wacko conference that was being held locally with “scientists” and others meeting to discuss the supposedly dire problem of the oceans become acidic due to having absorbed so much carbon dioxide because of global warming.

      As much as I despise Islam, there is something to be said for a religion that at least isn’t a complete wussified doctrine run by fools and panty-wastes. Wise care and management of environmental factors is a legitimate concern. But this isn’t what this stuff is about. It’s what Laura Ingraham calls The Church of Global Warming. And that really is what we’re talking about.

      And it’s humorous to me that all the fools and idiots who have developed a passionate hatred for the Catholic Church and other christians (because supposedly all they want to do is create a theocracy) are more than fine with these Progressive/Marxist fools creating a Environocracy. (If Timothy has a better word for this — and I’m pretty sure he does — I’ll substitute it.)

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I’d probably use “envirocracy” over “environocracy”, but better would be to do something with green or, better yet, watermelon. The scientific name for watermelon (I checked Wikipedia after first reading your posting) is Citrullus lanatus, so a good version might be “citrullocracy” or “lanatocracy”.

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