Yael's Reviews > Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
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's review
Nov 22, 08

On August 27, 1883, an immense volcano on an island in the Sunda Straits of immense archipelago that was the Dutch East Indies (now called Indonesia) annihilated itself in an explosion that changed the world. Thousands of people in the vicinity of the volcano died right there; many more were made homeless and destitute as a result of it. The shock wave from that titanic explosion manifested as atmospheric pressure waves -- sound waves -- heard thousands of miles away, and the disaster was followed by an enormous tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Dust generated by the eruption entered the atmosphere and was carried around the planet for years; the dust caused gorgeous, lurid sunsets with unsettling displays of light, but it also made global temperatures plummet, with consequent losses of crops, disastrous levels of snow and rain in many areas of the world followed by massive erosion and destruction of habitat, and countless other catastrophes. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Washington, DC and Bogata went crazy in reaction to the horrendous atmospheric shockwaves generated by the event. The sound of the eruption was heard in places as far away as Australia, India, and islands thousand of miles away. And the eruption combined with other causes, such as brutal treatment of native populations by the Dutch, to trigger a wave of a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among Java's fundamentalist Muslims, one of the first modern outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere.

Krakatoa has done this before in various incarnations. In Catastrophe: An Investigation Into the Origins of the Modern World (previously reviewed here on this site), David Keys describes the global havoc wrought by such an eruption in the Sunda Straits in 535 AD, made far worse than that caused by the eruption of 1883 by lack of rapid transit and communications of the sort that were available in the second half of the 19th century. Krakatoa, known among volcanologists as a supervolcano because of its size at eruption and its potential for destruction, shares with the Yellowstone, Wyoming, Long Valley, California, and Naples, Italy volcanic domes (http://www.solcomhouse.com/yellowston...) the ability to caused worldwide disasters over periods of many years, thereby heavily impacting human civilization and human populations over most of the Earth, and wreaking havoc on the habitats and ways of life of most of the Earth's other creatures. Its eruptions have literally changed the course of history, and may have altered the course of the evolution of our species and numerous other life-forms, Earth-bound versions of large impact events due to comets and asteroidal materials.

Unlike the Yellowstone supervolcano, however, Krakatoa's last two monstrous eruptions occurred within the last two thousand years. The last Yellowstone eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago, well before the rise of modern hominids leading to Homo sapiens. The most recent eruption of Krakatoa occurred only 125 years ago, well after the rise of modern Western industrial civilization, the invention of the telegraph, and the proliferation of railroads throughout the world, a time when European and British colonization of large areas of Asia and Africa had been underway for centuries, and the political currents of the time were delicately balanced, just waiting for a good, hard push to send them roaring into new channels. In the Dutch East Indies, the eruption of Krakatoa provided that push, resulting in massive riots against the Duth masters of the people of that area that ultimately culminated in the downfall of much of the Netherlands' most profitable colonial endeavors.

The impact of the eruption on global weather patterns translated into a vast impact on the world economy and the economies of countless nations and empires, including the largest. The ecological dynamics of the Earth's wildlands and the productivity of cultivated lands were disrupted for years, possibly driving many wild species of animals and plants to extinction. Crops were destroyed and large herds of domestic animals raised for their meat and milk were killed throughout the human world, which in turn heavily impacted human politics and economics and the lives of millions of people.

However, there was an upside to this disaster: scientific advances in numerous fields due to what was learned about the eruption of Krakatoa, and what it said about natural processes everywhere. This scientific fallout from the event wasn't long in coming. Because of the speed of communication in the Victorian Age, thanks to the telegraph, and more rapid transit by train and ship because of which scientists could journey to the area where the eruption had occurred and observe the damage it caused and the characteristics of the volcano itself first-hand, data from the event and its aftermath began to flow into the world's universities and research institutions within a relatively short time, months as opposed to the literal centuries or even millennia it has taken for us to begin to understand what earlier eruptions of supervolcanoes like the Yellowstone Dome have done to the world. Some of that data has had to wait for more recent observations and the invention of the most modern scientific techniques and equipment for a complete understanding of their implications, but even in the closing decade of the 19th century, the international scientific community was gaining new and important insights about tectonic processes and their effects on the world thanks to the eruption of Krakatoa.

Even so, Krakatoa, or rather Anak Krakatoa, "Child of Krakatoa," a volcano that has been growing for years on the site of the 1883 eruption of its parent, may have more lessons to teach us about our vulnerability to natural disasters and just how helpless we are to prevent the occurrence of many of them. Krakatoa has blasted our world in one incarnation after another, and will do so again. The only question is, "When?" And when it erupts, in all its awesome power, it could deliver a body-blow to our modern high-tech civilization, so dependent on intensive farming and high-tech gadgetry that can be bollixed and made useless by anything from eruptions on the Sun to local atmospheric effects, that would leave millions or even billions dead and the rest in serious trouble. Can we prepare against that? Probably not -- look at our difficulties in preparing for hurricanes and earthquakes, and cleaning up their damage afterwards. Those happen all the time. No one wants to spend the tax money for one-off, relatively rare events like the most massive solar flares, huge tsunamis, impacts of heavenly cannon-fire, and the eruption of supervolcanoes rather than than using the money to deal with the worst that the atmosphere and earthquake faults can deliver. And so we set ourselves up for disaster.
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