Whilst many complain about the alleged ‘lack of action on climate change’, along with thick smoke from surrounding bushfires, a far worse disaster occurred during the 19th Century.

An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

One of the deadliest and most devastating volcanic eruptions occurred in the late morning on 27 August 1883, with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6.

Reverend J R Tenison-Woods, who was in Java at the time, described it as ‘the most appalling catastrophe of modern times’ in a series of articles for The Sydney Morning Herald.

A Violent Past

Krakatoa was about 5 kilometres (3 miles) and 9 kilometres (5.5 miles) in length, between the islands of Sumatra and Java.

It is part of the Ring of Fire which passes through Indonesia, causing earthquakes and volcanos whenever the Indo-Australian tectonic plate moves against the Eurasian plate.

Krakatoa lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire which runs from Sumatra to about 6,000 miles, to the Philippines.

The region had about 27 active volcanos around Java, including 20 on the island itself, but it was Krakatoa which was said to cause the most concern.

Getting Ready To Rumble

Geologists had found evidence of a previous violent eruption during the 17th Century but had remained dormant until 1877.

Earthquakes began to shake Sunda Straits and rumbled for about six years, when Krakatoa began to erupt, spouting dust and pumice for about four months.

Then on 26 August, a series of convulsions, which lasted about 24 hours, began to shake the region of the smoking island.

During the morning of 27 August, Krakatoa erupted with a ‘tremendous upheaval’, sending an estimated 15 miles (24 kilometres) of gas and debris into the air, with a huge coral block thrown onto the shore of nearby Java.

The eruption destroyed three-quarters of the island, leaving a cavity about 1,000 feet below sea-level, as it continued spewing lava, pumice and dust into the air for two days.

The column rising from the crater reached a height of 17 miles! (27 km).

Heavy darkness covered the land, including Batavia (later named Jakarta) of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and sea from around midday on 27 August 1883, within a 275-mile (442 kilometres) radius.

Dawn did not return for three days and some reports claimed the moon appeared to be blue or had turned green.

Volcanic ash fell as far away as 3,775 miles (6,076 km), landing on ships in the north-west.

Lava and ashes with columns of steam and water, which rose about 650 feet, occurred intermittently until around 1928.

The sounds of the explosions were so so loud they were heard in Perth and Lower Murchison in Western Australia, about 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometres) away, and even as far as South Australia.

The sheer force of the blast could be felt as far away as Cape Horn in southern Chile and even the English Channel.

Reports of a red glow in the eastern sky which were visible for two hours before sunrise and in the west for two hours after sunset, providing inspiring artists such as British artist William Ashcroft and Norwegian Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’

Red Sky after eruption at Krakatoa in 1883
‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch, showing red skies following Krakatoa. (Public Domain.)

Some of the effects were average global temperatures had dropped by 1.2 degrees cooler during the next five years, record rainfall in California and extremely high amounts of sulphur dioxide, a colourless gas with a pungent odour, thrust into the stratosphere.

Sulphur dioxide is carried by high-level winds all over the world with an increase of sulphuric acid concentration in high-level cirrus clouds until it falls to the earth as acid rain and air pollution.

An excess of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere causes skin irritation and affects tissues and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and throat.

Tsunami

The volcano triggered a tsunami with huge waves, nearly 120 feet high, which swept through the Sunda Straits, destroying over 160 coastal towns and villages, on nearby low-lying islands and coasts.

Some residents had quickly packed up their belongings, made their way to the beaches, only to be caught up in the tsunami.

Trees, other vegetation and animals had washed away whilst volcanic debris destroyed forests on nearby islands.

The tidal wave carried the Steamship Berouw nearly a mile inland on Sumatra, killing all 28 crew members.

On the other hand, the Loudon was anchored nearby. The ship’s captain succeeded in turning the ship’s bow to face the huge wave and it was able to ride over the crest, and the crew and passengers survived.

The tidal wave struck other ships, as far away as South Africa, with the bodies of victims found floating in the ocean for months afterwards.

1888 paintings, showing the red skies following the Krakatoa volcano eruption. Photo: Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, G. J. Symons (editor) – Houghton Library

Anak Krakatoa

A small island, known as Anak Krakatoa (the Child of Krakatoa), was discovered in 1927 and has continued to erupt periodically with little danger to the surrounding islands. The last recorded eruption was on 31 March 2014, registering a VEI of 1.

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