August 27

This Day in History

Disaster

Aug 27, 1883:

Krakatoa erupts

The volcanic island of Krakatoa near Indonesia erupts on this day in 1883, killing thousands in one of the worst geologic disasters of modern times.

The beginning of the amazing events at Krakatoa in 1883 date to May 20 when there were initial rumblings and venting from the volcano, which had been dormant for about 200 years. Over the next three months, there were regular small blasts from Krakatoa out of three vents. On August 11, ash started spewing from the small mountain. Eruptions got progressively stronger until August 26, when the catastrophe began.

At noon, the volcano sent an ash cloud 20 miles into the air and tremors triggered several tsunamis. This turned out to be just a small indication, however, of what would follow the next day. For four-and-a-half hours beginning at 5:30 a.m. on August 27, there were four major and incredibly powerful eruptions. The last of these made the loudest sound ever recorded on the planet. It could be heard as far away as central Australia and the island of Rodrigues, 3,000 miles from Krakatoa. The air waves created by the eruption were detected at points all over the earth.

The eruption had devastating effects on the islands near Krakatoa. It set off tremendous tsunamis that overwhelmed hundreds of villages on the coasts of Java and Sumatra. Water pushed inland several miles in certain places, with coral blocks weighing 600 tons ending up on shore. At least 35,000 people died, though exact numbers were impossible to determine. The tsunamis traveled nearly around the world--unusually high waves were noticed thousands of miles away the next day.

The volcano threw so much rock, ash and pumice into the atmosphere that, in the immediate area, the sun was virtually blocked out for a couple of days. Within a couple of weeks, the sun appeared in strange colors to people all over the world because of all the fine dust in the stratosphere. Over the ensuing three months, the debris high in the sky produced vivid red sunsets. In one case, fire engines in Poughkeepsie, New York, were dispatched when people watching a sunset were sure that they were seeing a fire in the distance. Further, there is speculation that Edvard Munch's 1893 painting "The Scream" depicting a psychedelic sunset may have actually been a faithful rendering of what Munch saw in Norway in the years following the eruption of Krakatoa. The amount of dust in the atmosphere also filtered enough sun and heat that global temperatures fell significantly for a couple of years.

Krakatoa was left only a tiny fraction of its former self. However, in the intervening years, a small island, Anak Krakatoa ("Son of Krakatoa") has arisen from the sea. It is growing at an average of five inches every week. This island is receiving a great deal of scientific attention, as it represents a chance to see how island ecosystems are established from scratch.

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