Saturday, December 09, 2006
Krakatoa:The Day The World Exploded August 27, 1883
While it may have the most cumbersome title of any book I've ever read, Simon Winchester's chronicle of the epic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 is amazing. Tackling both the history of Java, starting with the spice trade and subsequent Dutch colonization, he works his way through a discussion of Plate Tectonics, and of course the titular eruption and the aftereffects.
While some may find Winchester's fascination with detail a bit much, he does tend to cover many topics that are only moderately related to his story, the central tale is certainly compelling enough to hold your attention.
After a bit of history on the Spice trade, the author dives into the history of scientific study in Indonesia. There is a lot of fascinating bits and pieces here, including some early (pre-Darwin) work on what was to come to be the Theory of Evolution, as well as a look at Plate Tectonics, and the role that plays in the creation of Indonesia's many violent volcanoes.
The star attraction is the account of the actual eruption, and it does not dissapoint. While Krakatoa is not the largest eruption ever, or even the largest in history (Tambora, also in Indonesia, holds that distinction with an eruption in 1815 and a deathtoll of 71,000 over Krakatoa's 36,000.) However, Krakatoa was the first major, world altering disaster to occur after the invention of the telegraph. Before, news accounts would be weeks or months or even years behind the event. With Krakatoa the news hit London papers a mere day later, and continual, global coverage was possible for the first time in history, and that is why, even to this day, Krakatoa has a hold on the popular imagination much greater than most volcanos. After all, how many non-geology nuts have heard of Tambora?
This is not to disparage Krakatoa. While it may not be number one, it does have a few other distinctions. It is the loudest sound ever heard by modern humans, audible over 3,000 miles away. As Winchester quoted from a contemporary science writer, Eugene Murray Aaron,
"If a man were to meet a resident of Philadelphia and tell him that he had heard an explosion in Trenton [New Jersey], thirty miles away, he might be believed, although there would be some doubt as to his powers of imagination. If however he should make the same assertion of an explosion in Wheeling, West Virginia, three hundred miles away, all doubts of his accuracy would vanish. but if, with every sign of sincerity and a desire to be believed, he should earnestly insist upon his having heard an eplosion in San Francisco, three thousand miles away, he would recieve a pitying smile, and his listener would silently walk away."(p 261)
Not only did the sound of Krakatoa messily destroying itself propogate to extreme distances, the shock wave was recorded as having traveled around the earth 7! times. The tsunamis were recorded as far away as France. Much attenuated of course, but still measurable. Closer in the waves officially destroyed 165 villages and towns and conspired to fling a Dutch warship, The Berouw a fullmile and a half up a river, killing all aboard in the wild ride.
Winchester closes out the tale with a look at Anak Krakatoa, Son of Krakatoa, the fresh volcanic island that surfaced from the caldera in the 1930's. The child is growing at a prodigous rate, proof that the tectonic demons under the waves were not fully sated by the eruption of 1883.