Volcanoes: Krakatoa Blows its Top Part 1

About the natural disaster in 1883 when the volcano Krakatoa erupted, the history of the event and destruction that followed.


After a half-million years of peaceful slumber, Mount Perboewaten-one of 3 volcanic cones on the uninhabited island of Krakatoa--awoke with a roar to belch steam, ash, and pumice to a height of 36,000'. Spasmodically, for the next 3 months, the supposedly extinct volcano exhibited signs of life. Then came a series of eruptions and explosions that lasted 22 hours. The whole island exploded with such force that sound waves encircled the globe.

When: August 27, 1883.

Where: On Krakatoa, the largest island among Lang, Verlaten, Polish Hat, and Krakatoa, a 4-island group in the Dutch East Indies.

The Loss: 36,417 people lost their lives; 165 villages were razed and 132 others badly damaged.

The Cause: A volcano is a hole in the earth's crust that serves as a chimney for the earth's molten center. As the core cools and the earth contracts, gas and steam are compressed under tremendous pressures (100 tons per sq. in.) that demand release. Outward through 1,800 mi. of the earth's mantle and lithosphere they fight their way along a maze of corridors toward the earth's surface. Pressure builds until magma, pumice, and ash breach the surface layers and a fiery hell explodes into the atmosphere.

The Disaster: The 1st warning of impending disaster occurred at 10:55 A.M. on Sunday, May 20, 1883. A few miles from Krakatoa, aboard the German naval corvette Elizabeth, Captain Hollmann noticed a billowing vapor cloud rising to an estimated height of 36,000'. From it emanated flashes of fire, detonations, and showers of sulfur-colored ash. In days the activity subsided, only to recur on June 16, and again in early July. Dutch villagers were unconcerned (there were 49 active volcanoes on Java alone). Javanese natives recalled their ancient legends of Krakatoa and prayed silently for deliverance.

Sunday morning, August 26, the sun came up in a cloudless sky. By noon the islands languished in misty vaporous heat. The lush greenness of Krakatoa shimmered in contrast to an opaque backdrop of blue. Deep in the earth, below Krakatoa, a seething, churning mass fought its way upward to freedom. The 3 plugs in Mount Rakata, Mount Danan, and Mount Perboewaten held tight.

At 1:06 P.M. the pent-up energies, held captive for centuries, pushed hard against the surface. The plugs blew. With a thunderous explosion, mushroom clouds of steam and debris shot upward 7 mi. Hundreds of thousands of people heard the eardrum-splitting blast. For an hour the clouds could be seen, then ash blacked out a 150-sq.-mi. area turning day into stygian darkness. No one could see anything for 3 days except dim flashes of light. The last telegram sent over the wires from Anjer to Batavia was at 2 P.M. Explosions continued. By 3 P.M. they were running 2 minutes apart.

The sea turned angry, black, and ominous, rising and falling 10' every 15 minutes. From every village along Sunda Strait there was an exodus of people trying to reach higher ground. Those attempting to escape by coastal roads were caught by the rising sea. A heavy rain of ash and pumice transformed everything into dark shadows. At 7:55 P.M. the whole area was shaken by a violent earthquake, followed by rain and lightning. Fear gripped Dutchmen and natives alike. The day of judgment had come. Between the rhythmic vomitings of Krakatoa, earthquake shocks crumpled buildings, and the noise of the rising winds was echoed by that of the raging sea.

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