Krakatoa—A Catastrophe Revisited
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN INDONESIA
CARITA BEACH seems such a peaceful place. Nothing about it suggests a troubled past. To all appearances it is a placid resort in Java, about a hundred miles [150 km] west of the city of Djakarta and located in the Sunda Strait, which separates the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. The crowds and traffic jams of Djakarta seem very far away, and the atmosphere feels calm and restful. Native houses stand confidently right near the water’s edge.
But that name—Carita Beach—is a subtle clue to a turbulent history. “Carita” is an Indonesian word meaning “story,” and this place, like so many others in the area, is a virtual repository of tragic stories—all stemming from a single cataclysm that tore through this region and made itself felt around the world.
Looking out across the calm, blue waters of the Sunda Strait from Carita Beach, one can see a group of small islands. From one of them—Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa)—smoke still rises. The ominous-sounding name is reminiscent of its angry “father,” Mount Krakatoa, most of which disappeared beneath the waters of the Sunda Strait after erupting in the greatest explosion of all modern history on August 27, 1883.
A group of 17 of us set out from Carita Beach to visit the island group. We hired a boat to make the 25-mile [40 km] journey across the strait. As the Java coast receded into the mist, I thought back on Krakatoa’s violent past.
Krakatoa’s Violent History
Today, Krakatoa refers to a group of four islands: Rakata, Panjang, and Sertung, with young Anak Krakatau in the middle. Rakata was long the center of volcanic activity. It grew immensely centuries ago when two more volcanic cones pushed up from the sea nearby and gradually merged with Rakata to form ferocious Mount Krakatoa. Fortunately, it seems that all this activity kept the island uninhabited.
Although there are some reports of a moderate eruption in 1680 that destroyed all vegetation, by 1883, Krakatoa was again covered with lush tropical vegetation. But the island rumbled to life on May 20, 1883, with explosions and ejections of pumice, ash, and clouds of steam. This uproar continued through June and July. By mid-August, all three main craters were throwing up great columns of vapor, dust, pumice, and ash. Ships passing through the strait had to plow through great rafts of pumice, while ash showered down on their decks.
As we navigated through these same waters, the only thing raining down on our deck was the occasional flying fish that couldn’t quite leap all the way over the boat. It was hard to imagine a time when so much gloom and destruction hung over these calm waters. But the cataclysm had barely begun.
The end approached on August 26, as explosion after explosion merged into a continuous roar. Finally, on August 27, four major detonations—at 5:30, 6:44, 10:02, and 10:52 a.m.—rocked the volcano. The climactic third blast was greater by far than the one at Hiroshima and any subsequent atomic explosions. In fact, some say it had the power of 100,000 hydrogen bombs. It was heard in Australia, Myanmar, and Rodrigues, an island 3,000 miles [5,000 km] away in the Indian Ocean. The pressure waves in the atmosphere circled the earth seven and a half times before fading away. As far away as the English Channel, boats were rocked by the fading seismic waves.
An ash cloud rose to an estimated height of 50 miles [80 km] and mushroomed out. Darkness blanketed the entire region for two and a half days. The New York Times on August 30, 1883, quoting Lloyd’s of London, warned all ships to avoid the Sunda Strait. It was dangerous for navigation because all lighthouses had “disappeared.” The volcano’s dust reached high into the atmosphere, where air currents spread it around the planet within weeks. One result was a year or two of brilliant sunrises, sunsets, sun halos, and other atmospheric phenomena.
The Devastation to Life
The explosion caused huge seismic waves, called tsunamis, reaching a height of 50 feet [15 m] in the open sea. As one wave swept up the narrowing bay into the Javanese town of Merak, the onrushing wall of water is believed to have pushed up to a height of 135 feet [40 m]. It crashed down on the town, completely destroying it. Several other towns along the Java and Sumatra coasts suffered similar fates. Almost 37,000 people were drowned by tsunamis that day. One warship was found stranded two miles [3 km] inland!
What, exactly, had happened? The fearsome Krakatoa had spewed out nearly five cubic miles [20 cu km] of debris, draining its huge underground chamber of magma. The empty chamber collapsed, thereby plunging two-thirds of the island into the sea. Land that had towered 1,000 feet [300 m] above sea level sank to 1,000 feet [300 m] below sea level. Only half of the tallest cone, Rakata, remained.
What was left of Rakata, along with the islands of Panjang and Sertung, was covered with a hundred feet [30 m] of hot, sterile ash. All life was believed to have been destroyed. When a survey was made nine months later, only one tiny spider was found spinning a web. In the years that followed, Krakatoa became something of a research laboratory as scientists documented the return of life to the three islands. The nearest land from which life could come was 25 miles [40 km] away.
A little more than 60 years ago, a new volcanic cone pushed up out of the sea in the middle of the three islands. This Child of Krakatoa (Anak Krakatau) continued to erupt and grow as the years went by. Today it is about 650 feet [200 m] high, 1.2 miles [2 km] wide—and very active! It was this tantrum-prone child that we visited first.
A Visit to Krakatoa’s Child and Neighbors
We pulled in close to the shore of Anak Krakatau, and with some difficulty we clambered off the boat onto the brilliant black sand of the beach. The eastern tip of the island was well forested with casuarina trees, some with trunks up to 24 inches [60 cm] in diameter. There was a surprising variety of other plants and flowers. Many species of birds flitted through the trees, and bats hung upside down in a fig tree. Lizards scuttled through the undergrowth. The forested part of the island was alive with insects and butterflies.
However, Anak Krakatau’s rebirth has been hindered by numerous eruptions over the years; plant life still covers only about 5 percent of the island. As we trudged our way through the deep black ash toward the volcano’s summit, we saw that already a variety of plants were starting to colonize these barren slopes, creeping ever upward until the next eruption forces a retreat.
Steam seeped from cracks in the volcano’s side. Looking down into the inferno from the crater’s edge, we could see firsthand the turbulence of this fiery child. It was not hard to imagine the vast tectonic plates slowly grinding together far beneath the Sunda Strait, making this the most active volcanic region in the world.
Reforestation has made steadier progress on the nearby islands of Sertung, Rakata, and Panjang, which surround Anak Krakatau. They have been free of eruptions themselves since the unforgettable blast of 1883. In little more than a century, they have healed and regenerated, transformed again into peaceful islands luxuriant with tropical growth. In fact, within just 20 to 40 years after the eruption, these islands were already reforested and colonized by a variety of birds, lizards, snakes, bats, and insects. Since then, the resurgence of life has continued apace.
Did some forms of life survive Krakatoa’s terrible heat and falling ash? Many botanists and zoologists believe not, though some question this conclusion. Generally they presume that seed-carrying birds and drifting debris from flooded rivers in Sumatra and Java have borne the returning tide of living things.
As our boat headed out of the calm blue waters within the circle of islands for our return journey to Java, I could not help reflecting on our planet’s remarkable ability to heal. When left alone, the earth can rehabilitate itself. I found that to be a comforting thought, especially in view of the fact that mankind is wreaking a catastrophe of global proportions on this planet right now. Today, man is gradually doing damage that dwarfs even the Gargantuan upheaval of Krakatoa. But when he stops—and stop he will—the earth will heal. As we plowed through the azure waves of the Sunda Strait, I looked back at the green islands, alive again after the demise of Krakatoa. Yes, the earth can heal. How wonderful it will be to see that happen on a global scale!—Isaiah 35:1-7; Revelation 11:18.
[Picture on page 15]
Anak Krakatau in the distance