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Krakatoa, The Greatest Volcanic Explosions

( Originally Published 1906 )

The Volcano That Blew Its Own Head Off—The Terrific Crash Heard Three Thousand Miles-Atmospheric Waves Travel Seven Times Around the Earth—A Pillar of Dust Seventeen Miles High—Islands of the Malay Archipelago Blotted Out of Existence—Native Villages Annihilated—Other Disastrous Upheavals in the East Indies.

ONE of the fairest regions of the world is the Malay Archipelago of the East Indies. Here nature is prodigal with her gifts to man, and the cocoa-palm, cinnamon and other trees flourish, and rice, cotton, the sugar cane and tobacco yield their increase under cultivation. But beneath these scenes of loveliness, there are terrific energies, for this region is a- focus of intense volcanic action. In the Sunda strait, between Sumatra and Java, there lies a group of small volcanic islands, the largest of which is Krakatoa. It forms part of the "basal wreck" of a large submarine volcano, whose visible edges are also represented by Velaten and Lang islands.

For two hundred years the igneous forces beneath Krakatoa remained dormant; but in September, 1880, premonitory shocks of earthquake were heard in the neighborhood. At length the inhabitants of Batavia and Bintenzorg were startled on May 2o, 1883, by booming sounds which came from Krakatoa, one hundred miles distant. A mail steamer passing through the strait, had her compass violently agitated. Next day a sprinkling of ashes was noticed at some places on each side of the strait, and toward evening a steam-column rising from Krakatoa revealed the locality of the disturbance. The commander of the German war ship Elisabeth, while passing, estimated the dust-column to be about thirty-six thousand feet, or seven miles high.

Volcanic phenomena being common to that region, no fears were entertained by the inhabitants in the vicinity; and an excursion party even started from Batavia to visit the scene of action. They reached the island on May 27th, and saw that the cone of Perborwatan was active, and that a column of vapor arose from it to a.. height of not less than ten thousand feet, while lumps of pumice were shot up to about six hundred feet. Explosions occurred at intervals of from five to ten minutes, each of these outbursts uncovering the liquid lava in the vent, the glow of which lighted up the overhanging steam-cloud for a few seconds.

Shortly after this visit the activity diminished. But on June 19th it was noticed at Anjer that the height of the dust and vapor-column, and likewise the explosions were again increasing. On the 24th a second column was seen rising. At length, Captain Ferzenaar, chief of the Topographical Survey of Ban-tam, visited Krakatoa island on August 11th. He found its forests destroyed, and the mantle of dust near the shores was twenty inches thick. Three large vapor-columns were noted, one marking the position of the crater of Perborwatan, while the other two were in the center of the island, and of the latter, one was probably Danan. There were also no less than eleven other eruptive foci, from which issued smaller steam-columns and dust. This was the last report prior to the great paroxysm.

During the next two or three weeks there was a decline in the energy of the volcano, but on the afternoon of Sunday, August 26th, and all through the following night, it was evident that the period of moderate eruptive action had passed, and that Krakatoa had now entered upon the paroxysmal stage. From sunset on Sunday till midnight the tremendous detonations followed each other so quickly that a continuous roar may be said to have issued from the island. The full terrors of the eruption were now approaching. The distance of ninety-six miles from Krakatoa was not sufficient to permit sleep to the inhabitants of Batavia. All night volcanic thunders sounded like the discharges of artillery at their very doors. On the next morning there were fout mighty explosions. The third was of appalling violence, and it gave rise to the most far-reaching effects. The entire series of grand phenomena at that spot extended over a little more than thirty-six hours.

Captain Thompson, of the Media, then seventy-six miles northeast of Krakatoa, saw a black mass like smoke rising into the clouds to an altitude estimated at not less than seven-teen miles. The eruption was also viewed by Captain Wooldridge at a distance of forty miles. He speaks of the vapory mass looking like "an immense wall, with bursts of forked lightning, at times like large serpents rushing through the air." After sunset this dark wall resembled "a blood-red curtain with the edges of all shades of yellow, the whole of a murky tinge, with fierce flashes of lightning." Two other masters of vessels, at about the same distance from the volcano, report seeing the mastheads and yardarms of their ships aglow with electric fire. Such effects seem to be easily explicable. When we consider how enormous must be the friction going on in the hot air, through the clash against each other of myriads of particles of volcanic dust, during ejection and in their descent, it is evident that such friction is adequate to produce a widespread electrical disturbance in the surrounding atmosphere. The rush of steam through craters or other fissures would also contribute to these disturbances.

From these causes the compasses of passing ships were much disturbed. And yet the fall of magnetic oxide of iron (magnetite), a constituent of volcanic ash, possibly had some share in creating these perturbations. On the telephone line from Ishore, which included a submarine cable about a mile long, reports like pistol shots were heard. At Singapore, five hundred miles from Krakatoa, it was noted at the Oriental Telephone Company's station that, on putting the receiver to the ear, a roar like that of a waterfall was heard. So great was the mass of vapor and dust in the air, that profound darkness, which lasted many hours, extended even to one hundred and fifty miles from the focus of the eruption. There is the record, among others, that it was "pitch dark" at Anjer at two o'clock in the afternoon of the 26th.

So great, too, was the ejective force that the fine volcanic dust was blown up to a height of fifty thousand feet, or over nine miles, into space. Another estimate gives the enormous altitude of seventeen miles to which the dust had been blown. The volcanic ash, which fell upon the neighboring islands within a circle of nine and one half miles radius, was from sixty-five to one hundred and thirty feet thick. At the back of the island the thickness of the ash beds was from one hundred and ninety-five to two hundred and sixty feet. Masses of floating pumice encumbered the strait. The coarser particles of this ash fell over a known area equal to 285,170 square miles, a space equal to the whole of the New England States, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio Indania and Illinois. It is calculated that the matter so ejected must have been considerably over a cubic mile in volume.

Another distinguishing feature of this display of nature's powers was the magnitude and range of the explosive sounds. Lloyd's agent at Batavia, ninety-four miles distant from Krakatoa, reported that on the morning of the 27th the reports and concussions were simply deafening. At Carimon, Java, which is three hundred and fifty-five miles distant, the natives heard reports which led them to suppose that a distant ship was in distress; boats put off for what proved to be a futile search.

The explosions were heard not only all over the province of Macassar, nine hundred and sixty-nine miles from the scene of the eruption, but over a yet wider area. At a spot one thousand one hundred and sixteen miles distant—St. Lucia bay, Borneo—some natives heard the awful sound. It stirred their consciences, for, being guilty of murder, they fled, fearing that such sounds signified the approach of an avenging force. Again, in the island of Timor, one thousand three hundred and fifty-one miles away, the people were so alarmed that the government sent off a steamer to seek the cause of the disturbance.

At that time, also, the shepherds on the Victoria plains, West Australia, thought they heard the firing of heavy artillery, at a spot one thousand seven hundred miles distant. At midnight, August 26th, the people of Daly Waters, South Australia, were aroused by what they thought was the blasting of a rock, a sound which lasted a few minutes. "The time and other circumstances show that here again was Krakatoa heard, this time at the enormous distance of two thousand and twenty-three miles." And yet there is trustworthy evidence that the sounds were heard over even greater distances. Thundering noises were heard at Diego Garcia, in the Chagos islands, two thousand two hundred and sixty-seven miles from Krakatoa. It was imagined that some vessel must be in distress, and search was accordingly made. But most remarkable of all, Mr. James Wallis, chief of police in Rodriguez, across the Indian ocean, and nearly three thousand miles away from Krakatoa, made a statement in which he said that "several times during the night of August 26th-27th reports were heard coming from the eastward like the distant roar of heavy guns. These reports continued at intervals of between three and four- hours." Obviously, some time was needed for the sounds to make such a journey. On the basis of the known rate of velocity, they must have been heard at Rodrigues four hours after they started from their source.

And yet, great as was the range of such vibrations, they could not be compared with that of the air-wave caused by the mighty outburst. This atmospheric wave started from Krakatoa at two minutes past ten on that eventful Monday morning, moving onward in an ever-widening circle, like that produced when a stone is thrown into smooth water. This ring-like wave traveled on at the rate of from six hundred and seventy-four to seven hundred and twenty-six miles an hour, and went around the world four, if not even seven times, as evidenced by the following facts: Batavia is nearly a hundred miles from the eruptive focus under review. There was connected with its gas-holder the usual pressure recorder. About thirteen minutes after the great outburst, this gauge showed a barometric disturbance equal to about four-tenths of an inch of mercury, that is, an extra air pressure of about a fifth of a pound on every square inch. The effects on the air of minor paroxysmal outbreaks are also recorded by this instrument; but barometers in the most distant places record the same disturbance. The great wave passed and repassed over the globe and no inhabitant was conscious of the fact. Barometers in the principal cities of the world automatically recorded this effect of the first great wave from Krakatoa to its antipodes in Central America, and also the return wave. The first four oscillations left their mark on upward of forty barograms, the fifth and sixth on several, and at Kew, England, the existence of a seventh was certainly established.

At the same time that this immense aerial undulation started on its tour around the world, another wave but of awful destructiveness, a seismic sea-wave, started on a similar journey. There can hardly be a doubt that this so-called "tidal-wave" was synchronous with the greatest of the explosions. A wave from fifty to seventy-two feet high arose and swept with resistless fury upon the shores each side of the straits. The destruction to life and property will probably never be fully known. At least thirty-six thousand lives were lost; a great part of the district of North Bantam was destroyed; and the towns of Anjer, Merak, Tyringin, and neighboring villages were overwhelmed. A man-of-war, the Berouw, was cast upon the shore of Sumatra nearly two miles inland, and masses of coral from twenty to fifty tons in weight were torn from the bed of the sea and swept upon the shore.

The formerly fertile and densely populated islands of Sibuku and Sibesi were entirely covered by a deposit of dry mud severals yards thick, and furrowed by deep crevasses. Of the inhabitants all perished to a man. Three islands, Steers, Calmeyer, and the islet east of Verlaten, completely disappeared and were covered by twelve or fourteen feet of water. Verlaten, formerly one mass of verdure, was uniformly covered with a layer of ashes about one hundred feet thick.

A few days after this eruption some remarkable sky effects were observed in different parts of the world. Many of these effects were -of extraordinary beauty. Accordingly scientific inquiry was made, and in due time there was collected and tabulated a list of places from whence these effects were seen, together with the dates of such occurrences. Eventually it was concluded that such optical phenomena had a common cause, and that it must be the dust of ultra-microscopic fineness at an enormous altitude. All the facts indicated that such a cloud started from the Sunda straits, and that the prodigious force of the Krakatoa eruption could at that time alone account for the presence of impalpable matter at such a height in the atmosphere.

This cloud traveled at about double the speed of an express train, by way of the tropics of Cancer and of Capri-corn. Carried by westerly-going winds, in three days it had crossed the Indian Ocean and was rapidly moving over Central Africa; two days later it was flying over the Atlantic; then, for two more days over Brazil, and then across the Pacific toward its birth-place. But the wind still carried this haze of fine particles onward, and again it went around the world within. a fortnight. In November, the dust area had expanded so as to include North America and Europe.

Here are a few facts culled from the report of the Royal Society of London. On the 28th, at Seychelles, the sun was seen as through a fog at sunset, and there was a lurid glare all over the sky. At the island of Rodriguez, on that day, "a strange, red, threatening sky was seen at sunset." At Mauritius (28th), there is the record "Crimson dawn, sun red after rising, gorgeous sunset, first of the afterglows; sky and clouds yellow and red up to the zenith." 28th and 29th, Natal-"most vivid sunsets, also August 31st and September 5th, sky vivid red, fading into green and purple." On the last days of August and September 1st, the sun, as seen from South America, appeared blue, while at Panama on the 2d and 3d of that month, the sun appeared green. "On the 2d of September, Trinidad, Port of Spain—Sun looked like a blue ball, and after sunset the sky became so red that there was supposed to be a big fire." "On the 5th of September, Honolulu—Sun set green. Remarkable afterglow first seen. Secondary glow lasted till 7:45 P. M., gold, green and crimson colors. Corona constantly seen from September 5th to December 15th. Misty rippled surface of haze."

It remains to be said that when this now famous island of Krakatoa was visited shortly after the great eruption, wonderful changes were noted. The whole northern and lower portion of the island had vanished, except an isolated pitchstone rock, ten yards square, and projecting out of the ocean with deep water all around it. What a tremendous work of evisceration this must have been is attested by the fact that where Krakatoa island, girt with luxuriant forests, once towered from three hundred to fourteen hundred feet above the sunlit waters, it is now, in some places, more than a thousand feet below them.

There is no region more frequently visited by earthquakes than the beautiful lands in the Indian ocean, and nowhere has greater damage been done than on the beautiful island of Java. In former ages Sumatra and Java formed one single island, but in the year 1115, after a terrific earthquake, the isthmus which connected them, disappeared in the waves with all its forests and fertile fields.

These two islands have more than 200 volcanoes, half of which have never been explored, but it is known that whenever there has been an eruption of any one of them, one or the other of the two islands has been visited by an earthquake, Moreover, earthquakes are so frequent in the whole archipelago that the principal ones serve as dates to mark time or to refer to, just as in our own country is the case with any great historic event. A month rarely passes without the soil being shaken, and the disappearance of a village is of frequent occurrence.

In 1822 the earthquake which accompanied the eruption of the Javanese volcano of Yalung-Yung, utterly destroyed 144 towns and villages. In 1772, when the Papand-Yung was in a state of furious eruption, the island of Java was violently agitated, and a tract of nearly twenty-five square leagues, which but the day before had been covered with flourishing villages and farms, was reduced to a heap of ruins. In 1815 an earthquake, accompanied by an eruption of the volcano of Timboro, in the island of Sumatra, destroyed more than 20,000 lives.

It is rare even in this archipelago that there occurs a cataclysm so terrible as that of When the first eruption of Krakatoa occurred on August 25, it seemed that it was a signal to the other volcanoes of Java and Sumatra. By mid-day Maha-Meru, the greatest, if not the most active of the Javanese volcanoes, was belching forth flame continuously. The eruption soon extended to the Gunung-Guntus and other volcanoes, until a third of the forty-five craters in Java were either in full blast, or beginning to show signs of eruption. While these eruptions were going on, the sea was in a state of tremendous agitation. The clouds floating above the water were charged with electricity, and at one moment there were fifteen large water-spouts to be seen at the same time.

Men, women and children fled in terror from their crumbling habitations, and filled the air with their cries of distress. Hundreds of them who had not time to escape were buried beneath the ruins. On Sunday evening the violence of the shocks and of the volcanic eruptions increased, and the island of Java seemed likely to be entirely submerged. Enormous waves dashed against the shore, and in some cases forced their way inland, while enormous crevices opened in the ground, threatening to engulf at one fell swoop all the inhabitants and their houses.

Toward midnight there was a scene of horror passing the powers of imagination. A luminous cloud gathered above the chain of the Kandangs, which run along the southeastern coast of Java. This cloud increased in size each minute, until at last it came to form a sort of dome of a gray and blood-red color, which hung over the earth for a considerable distance. In proportion as this cloud grew, the eruptions gained fresh force, and the floods of lava poured down the mountain sides with-out ceasing, and spread into the valleys, where they swept all before them. On Monday morning, about two o'clock, the heavy cloud suddenly broke up, and finally disappeared, but when the sun rose it was found that a tract of country extending from Point Capucine to the south as far as Negery Passoerang, to the north and west, and covering an area of about fifty square miles, had entirely disappeared.

There stood the previous day the villages of Negery, and Negery Babawang. Not one of the inhabitants had escaped. They and their villages had been swallowed up by the sea.



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