Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 26, 2013
Lithograph of the Krakatau  eruption

Lithograph of the Krakatau eruption

August 26, 1883: Krakatau erupts. The region had been plagued by earthquakes for years. Some of them were strong enough to be felt in Australia, ≈ 1,700 miles away. Beginning in May, steam began venting from Perboewatan, the northernmost of the island’s three volcanic cones. Ash was ejected reaching up 20,000 feet and visible in Batavia, Jakarta 100 miles away. Things got quiet again – until June.

On June 16, eruptions with loud explosions began again. Black clouds covered the island. A freshening wind blew the clouds away on June 24 to reveal two columns of ash billowing up from Krakatau. Eruptions sprang from a new vent or vents causing unusually high tides in the region. On August 11, H.J.G. Ferzenaar went to the island to investigate. He found three major ash columns and at least eleven other vents. All vegetation had been destroyed and ash 20 inches thick covered the island.

At 1 PM on August 26 the volcano went into its paroxysmal phase. Volcanic strength is measured by the amount of ejecta as well as the height of the plume. VEI 6 (on a scale of 1-8) is Plinean or colossal. These powerful eruptions occur, on average, once every few hundred years. The Krakatau eruption continued and by 2 PM the ash column could be seen rising 17 miles into the sky. On August 27, four explosions were heard at 05:30, 06:44, 10:02, and 10:41 – with the third being the loudest. The explosions were heard thousands of miles away in Australia and the island of Rodrigues.

The effects were far reaching. The official death toll by the local Dutch authorities was given as 36,417. There are some who put the count as high as 120,000. Whole settlements and entire populations were wiped out. Tsunamis hit the immediate area as well as far away in South Africa. Most of the island of Krakatau disappeared and the surrounding ocean floor was severely altered. Weather patterns changed globally from the massive infusion of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. Some of these atmospheric changes caused spectacularly colored sunsets worldwide. Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, is said to portray the oddly colored skies found halfway around the globe.

“This ground is hot enough to cook the Sunday roast!” – John Seach (Volcanologist) just before his boots melted on the hot ground.

“I have seen so many eruptions in the last 20 years that I don’t care if I die tomorrow.” – Maurice Krafft (Volcanologist) on the day before he was killed on Unzen Volcano, Japan

“What time does the volcano erupt?” – Tourist on Mt Etna

“Is this volcano active?” – Tourist on Mt Etna after being reprimanded for pitching a tent and sleeping the night at the base of the most dangerous volcanic vent in the world

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Krakatau is part of Indonesia which contains over 130 active volcano – more than any other nation on Earth. The volcano on Krakatau has had historical references as well. It was written about in the Javanese Book of Kings which recorded an explosion in 416 AD. There was a climactic event between 535 and 536 which may have been due to the volcano erupting in 535. The locals call the volcano The Fire Mountain and record eruptions around 850, 950, 1050, 1150, 1320, and 1530. There has been evidence since this massive eruption that a lava dome which is underwater has been emitting ejecta. The new island emerged above the waterline in 1927 for only a few days before sinking again. Further eruptions created four islands made of pumice and ash which were quickly eroded by the water. Anak Krakatau has grown at an average rate of five inches per week since the 1950s. On May 6, 2009, the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia raided the alert status for the island to Level III.

Also on this day: The Terminal Man – In 1988, Merhan Karrimi Nasseri hit the airport.
Negligence – In 1928, the first negligence case was started.
Big Chuck – In 1966, Charles de Gaulle entered Paris.

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2 Responses

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  1. historicalwritings said, on August 26, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Loved your article on Krakatau. One has to ask when will the next eruption occur, for it has been 130 years since the last serious eruption, but still it is considered a threat…
    I never realised it had erupted so many times over the centuries!

    • patriciahysell said, on August 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm

      I so enjoy writing these essays. I have learned so much and am thrilled when someone else has, too. There is so much wonder out there.

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