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'The crack of doom'

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, Simon Winchester, HarperCollins: 416 pp., $25.95

May 11, 2003|Kenneth Reich | Kenneth Reich is a staff writer for the Times.

Within 20 years around the turn of the 20th century occurred two of the most devastating and, to the local populations as well as experts of the fledgling science of volcanology, most surprising eruptions of modern times.

First, on Aug. 27, 1883, Krakatoa blew up the entire 2,600-foot mountainous island upon which it sat in the Sunda Strait between the great islands of Sumatra and Java in the Indonesian archipelago. The four major explosions of that day generated tsunamis that killed more than 36,000 people and were so strong that they swept around Africa and were even, in a ripple, noted in Europe thousands of miles distant. The sound was heard more than 3,000 miles away, and barometers of air pressure showed a shock wave circled the world seven times.

Then, on May 8, 1902, Mt. Pelee on the French-owned Caribbean island of Martinique expelled a glowing cloud of incandescent gases that skipped along the top of canyons lying in the four miles between it and the city of St. Pierre, hitting the municipality broadside and killing 29,533 inhabitants, leaving just two survivors. It was the first time the scientific community became aware of the possibility of pyroclastic flows, since recognized as one of the most immediately fatal volcanic effects. The explosion at Mt. Pelee was not as violent as the one at Krakatoa, but its fatal results were nearly as severe.

These two great calamities were not related to one another, but both had certain common traits. Plate tectonics were unknown at the time, but both eruptions occurred in subduction zones, near where one great tectonic plate was diving under another. Subduction is now recognized as a primary cause of volcanic activity. Both volcanoes also had fooled humanity into thinking they were not particularly dangerous, because there had been eruptions in the centuries before of both that did not amount to much, and when the new volcanism occurred, observers were certain it would follow the earlier pattern. This lulled them into a complacency that magnified the disaster.

The volcano may blow itself apart, as Krakatoa did, and it may sink into long quiet, as both Krakatoa and Pelee have done, but they do come back. And, in 1927, just 44 years after Krakatoa blew up, a new version, Anak Krakatoa, broke the sea's surface and began to rebuild on the same spot.

Simon Winchester has in "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883,"written an exhaustive and often exciting account of the Krakatoa events. In particular, it is outstanding in describing the sequence of events from 1:06 p.m., the moment of the first great explosion, on Aug. 26, 1883, to the immediate aftermath of the climactic blast of 10:02 a.m. the following day.

That moment has become known as "the crack of doom," which, as the author declares, "is still said to be the most violent explosion ever recorded and experienced by modern man." But is Krakatoa, as the book jacket declares, "the earth's most dangerous volcano?" Probably not, because it lies 80 miles from Jakarta, now the capital of Indonesia, and even on the day of the events of 120 years ago, when Jakarta was Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, it did not suffer much destruction from the comparatively far away eruption.

The world's most dangerous volcanoes, as recognized by the United Nations, are the ones like Vesuvius, near Naples, Italy, or Galeras, near Pasto, Colombia, which are within a very few miles of heavily populated cities, or Rainier, a little more distant from the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, which nonetheless has the altitude to send mudflows known as lahars into cities miles away. Among the greatest number of fatalities caused by a volcano in recent years were the lahar depredations of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia in 1985, in which 23,000 died when a canyon below the volcano was hit by a mudflow with the consistency of wet cement studded with tree parts and other debris.

The question of what is most dangerous is subject to argument, however, because tsunamis, generated by the kind of sudden displacement of seawater that occurred at Krakatoa, can travel thousands of miles at speeds of up to 500 mph and then do vast damage depending on how they come ashore. This happened, for example, at Hilo, Hawaii, in 1946. As Winchester points out, however, the narrow confines of the Sunda Strait may mean that the distant impact of tsunamis that originate there is somewhat blunted.

Along the adjacent shores of Sumatra and Java, the tsunamis were, according to the author, going only about 60 mph. Still, the run up, the distance inland the tsunamis went, was severe. And in one of the most impressive of this volume's illustrations, a sizable gunboat is shown stranded a mile and a half inland by one of the waves. "Hunks of rusting iron remained in the jungle until the 1980s," the author notes.

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