So Hot Right Now: The Explosive Roars of Krakatau

Why do we still remember the 1883 eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa) today? One reason is that the eruption coincided with new advances in global communucations technology. Oxford Earth Sciences DPhil student Amber L. Madden-Nadeau considers the role of information-sharing in developing our understanding of volcanoes...


This article originally appeared on Changing the Climate, a blog written by postgraduate students in Earth Sciences at Oxford.


The title of this piece was taken from an eye witness account of the 1883 eruption of Krakatau Volcano, Indonesia, which is possibly one of the most famous volcanic episodes of all time (Figure 1). The A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius is certainly a contender, however it caught the attention of the public more for its historical significance than for the eruption itself. Mount St. Helens received a lot of media coverage when it exploded in 1980, however this eruption was much smaller in comparison. Although the volcanic phenomenon that occurred in 1883 was explosive and deadly, the eruption of Tambora in 1815 was far more so on both accounts. So why was the 1883 eruption of Krakatau so infamous? The reason for this is simple: developments in communication technology, notably the invention of the telegraph, allowed the eruption to become global news. The Royal Society put out a plea for any eyewitness accounts of this event, and collated a report on the matter. These eyewitness accounts give scientists today an exceptional amount of insight into how the eruption progressed.

Figure 1: Lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatau (Symons, 1888).

The eruption began in May of 1883 with explosions and earthquakes: “At first we saw from the island a white cumulus cloud rising fast… it started to spread like an umbrella”. This excerpt was taken from an account at the start of the eruption from the German warship Elisabeth. Additional accounts include that from R.M.S. Quetta: “…after passing… on July 9th… we traversed a continuous field, unbroken as far as they eye could reach, of pumice, every day till the evening of the 12th… there can be no doubt that the pumice came from Krakatau… The pumice knobs were all water worn, and a few had barnacles of about one inch in length growing on them”. This account not only tells us how extensive the floating pumice was, but also that a proportion of it had been in the water for some time – long enough to allow for the growth of barnacles, which is in the order of weeks.

The eruption then decreased in intensity until the main, deadly eruption, which occurred on the 26th and 27th August. This climactic phase claimed the lives of ~35,000 people, mainly through pyroclastic flows and the subsequent tsunamis they generated. This account is from one man who escaped the giant waves: “when the darkness remained instead of light, and the showers of ashes increased, I grew more alarmed… I therefore thought it best to get as far away from Krakatau as possible… I had a number of relations living in the town, but they seemed to fancy themselves safe enough at home, and they accordingly remained behind. I never saw any of them again alive.” This illustrates the very real threat that Krakatau poses to the local area, and also highlights how important the role of education of local people is when trying to mitigate the threat that volcanism poses to human life. Government intervention is much improved now in comparison to 1883 thankfully, with an evacuation ordered for seven districts in 2011 after increased activity.

The closest survivors of the 1883 eruption were on the ship the Charles Bal. The captain brought samples of ash and pumice which landed on its deck back to the UK. They can be loaned out by scientists today from the British Geological Survey for analyses. Having historical samples and written accounts from a volcanic eruption is really useful, as it is difficult to discern what exactly happened during an eruption without this information. Using history in conjunction with science is a useful tool, which will hopefully continue to be exploited in the future. The past is the key to the present, after all.


Additional reading

Simkin, T. & Fiske, R.S. 1983. Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and its Effects. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Symons G.J. (eds.) 1888. The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society, London.

Wunderman, R. (eds.) 2011. Report on Krakatau (Indonesia) – August 2011. Global Volcanism