Krakatoa Volcano: Facts About 1883 Eruption
An 1888 lithograph of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.
Credit: Public domain

The eruption of Krakatoa, or Krakatau, in August 1883 was one of the most deadly volcanic eruptions of modern history. It is estimated that more than 36,000 people died. Many died as a result of thermal injury from the blasts and many more were victims of the tsunamis that followed the collapse of the volcano into the caldera below sea level. The eruption also affected the climate and caused temperatures to drop all over the world.

The island of Krakatau is in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. It is part of the Indonesian Island Arc. Volcanic activity is due to subduction of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate as it moves northward toward mainland Asia. The island is about 3 miles wide and 5.5 miles long (9 by 5 kilometers). Before the historic eruption, it had three linked volcanic peaks: Perboewatan, the northernmost and most active; Danan in the middle; and the largest, Rakata, forming the southern end of the island. Krakatau and the two nearby islands, Lang and Verlatan, are remnants of a previous large eruption that left an undersea caldera between them.

In May 1883, the captain of the Elizabeth, a German warship, reported seeing clouds of ash above Krakatau. He estimated them to be more than 6 miles (9.6 km) high. For the next two months, commercial vessels and chartered sightseeing boats frequented the strait and reported thundering noises and incandescent clouds. People on nearby islands held festivals celebrating the natural fireworks that lit the night sky. Celebration would come to a tragic halt on Aug. 27.

Krakatau (Krakatoa) in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.
Krakatau (Krakatoa) in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra.
Credit: CIA World Factbook

At 12:53 p.m. on Sunday the 26th, the initial blast of the eruption sent a cloud of gas and debris an estimated 15 miles (24 km) into the air above Perboewatan. It is thought that debris from the earlier eruptive activity must have plugged the neck of the cone, allowing pressure to build in the magma chamber. On the morning of the 27th, four tremendous explosions, heard as far away as Perth, Australia, some 2,800 miles (4,500 km) distant, plunged both Perboewatan and Danan into the caldera below the sea.

The initial explosion ruptured the magma chamber and allowed seawater to contact the hot lava. The result is known as a phreatomagmatic event. The water flash-boiled, creating a cushion of superheated steam that carried the pyroclastic flows up to 25 miles (40 km) at speeds in excess of 62 mph (100 kph). The eruption has been assigned a rating of 6 on the Volcanic Explosion Index and is estimated to have had the explosive force of 200 megatons of TNT. (For purposes of comparison, the bomb that devastated Hiroshima had a force of 20 kilotons, nearly ten thousand times less explosive as the Krakatoa eruption. The Krakatoa eruption was about ten times more explosive than the Mount St. Helens explosion of 1980 with a VEI of 5.)

Tephra (volcanic rock fragments) and hot volcanic gases overcame many of the victims in western Java and Sumatra, but thousands more were killed by the devastating tsunami. The wall of water, nearly 120 feet tall, was created by the volcano's collapse into the sea. It completely overwhelmed small nearby islands. Inhabitants of the coastal towns on Java and Sumatra fled toward higher ground, fighting their neighbors for toeholds on the cliffs. One hundred sixty five coastal villages were destroyed. The steamship Berouw was carried nearly a mile inland on Sumatra; all 28 crewmembers were killed. Another ship, the Loudon, had been anchored nearby. The ship's captain Lindemann succeeded in turning its bow to face the wave, and the ship was able to ride over the crest. Looking back, the crew and passengers saw that nothing was left of the pretty town where they had been anchored.

The explosions hurled an estimated 11 cubic miles (45 cubic km) of debris into the atmosphere, darkening skies up to 275 miles (442 km) from the volcano. In the immediate vicinity, the dawn did not return for three days. Ash fell as far away as 3,775 miles (6,076 km) landing on ships to the northwest. Barographs around the globe documented that the shock waves in the atmosphere circled the planet at least seven times. Within 13 days, a layer of sulfur dioxide and other gases began to filter the amount of sunlight able to reach Earth. The atmospheric effects made for spectacular sunsets all over Europe and the United States. Average global temperatures were as much as 1.2 degrees cooler for the next five years.

Anak Krakatoa, the 'Child of Krakatoa,' grew from the caldera and continues to erupt periodically.
Anak Krakatoa, the 'Child of Krakatoa,' grew from the caldera and continues to erupt periodically.
Credit: Byelikova Oksana Shutterstock
While justifiably rated as one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions of modern times, Krakatoa was not the largest eruption in the recent history of Indonesia. That "honor" belongs to the eruption of Mount Tambora on April 10, 1815. Krakatoa ranks third on the list based on explosive force and destruction.

Tambora is the only eruption in modern history to rate a VEI of 7. Global temperatures were an average of five degrees cooler because of this eruption; even in the United States, 1816 was known as the "year without a summer." Crops failed worldwide, and in Europe and the United States an unexpected outcome was the invention of the bicycle as horses became too expensive to feed.

In 1927, some Javanese fishermen were startled as a column of steam and debris began spewing from the collapsed caldera. Krakatoa had awakened after 44 years of calm. Within weeks, the rim of a new cone appeared above sea level. Within a year, it grew into a small island, which was named Anak Krakatoa, or Child of Krakatoa. Anak Krakatoa has continued to erupt periodically, although mildly and with little danger to the surrounding islands. The last eruption was on March 31, 2014. It registered a VEI of 1.

Additional reporting by Rachel Ross, Live Science Contributor

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