1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Krakatoa

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KRAKATOA (Krakatao, Krakatau), a small volcanic island in Sunda Strait, between the islands of Java and Sumatra, celebrated for its eruption in 1883, one of the most stupendous ever recorded. At some early period a large volcano rose in the centre of the tract where the Sunda Strait now runs. Long before any European had visited these waters an explosion took place by which the mountain was so completely blown away that only the outer portions of its base were left as a broken ring of islands. Subsequent eruptions gradually built up a new series of small cones within the great crater ring. Of these the most important rose to a height of 2623 ft. above the sea and formed the peak of the volcanic island of Krakatoa. But compared with the great neighbouring volcanoes of Java and Sumatra, the islets of the Sunda Strait were comparatively unknown. Krakatoa was uninhabited, and no satisfactory map or chart of it had been made. In 1680 it appears to have been in eruption, when great earthquakes took place and large quantities of pumice were ejected. But the effects of this disturbance had been so concealed by the subsequent spread of tropical vegetation that the very occurrence of the eruption had sometimes been called in question. At last, about 1877, earthquakes began to occur frequently in the Sunda Strait and continued for the next few years. In 1883 the manifestations of subterranean commotion became more decided, for in May Krakatoa broke out in eruption. For some time the efforts of the volcano appear to have consisted mainly in the discharge of pumice and dust, with the usual accompaniment of detonations and earthquakes. But on the 26th of August a succession of paroxysmal explosions began which lasted till the morning of the 28th. The four most violent took place on the morning of the 27th. The whole of the northern and lower portion of the island of Krakatoa, lying within the original crater ring of prehistoric times, was blown away; the northern part of the cone of Rakata almost entirely disappeared, leaving a vertical cliff which laid bare the inner structure of that volcano. Instead of the volcanic island which had previously existed, and rose from 300 to 1400 ft. above the sea, there was now left a submarine cavity, the bottom of which was here and there more than 1000 ft. below the sea-level. This prodigious evisceration was the result of successive violent explosions of the superheated vapour absorbed in the molten magma within the crust of the earth. The vigour and repetition of these explosions, it has been suggested, may have been caused by sudden inrushes of the water of the ocean as the throat of the volcano was cleared and the crater ring was lowered and ruptured. The access of large bodies of cold water to the top of the column of molten lava would probably give rise at once to some minor explosions, and then to a chilling of the surface of the lava and a consequent temporary diminution or even cessation of the volcanic eructations. But until the pent-up water-vapour in the lava below had found relief it would only gather strength until it was able to burst through the chilled crust and overlying water, and to hurl a vast mass of cooled lava, pumice and dust into the air.

The amount of material discharged during the two days of paroxysmal energy was enormous, though there are no satisfactory data for even approximately estimating it. A large cavity was formed where the island had previously stood, and the sea-bottom around this crater was covered with a wide and thick sheet of fragmentary materials. Some of the surrounding islands received such a thick accumulation of ejected stones and dust as to bury their forests and greatly to increase the area of the land. So much was the sea filled up that a number of new islands rose above its level. But a vast body of the fine dust was carried far and wide by aerial currents, while the floating pumice was transported for many hundreds of miles on the surface of the ocean. At Batavia, 100 m. from the centre of eruption, the sky was darkened by the quantity of ashes borne across it, and lamps had to be used in the houses at midday. The darkness even reached as far as Bandong, a distance of nearly 150 miles. It was computed that the column of stones, dust and ashes projected from the volcano shot up into the air for a height of 17 m. or more. The finer particles coming into the higher layers of the atmosphere were diffused over a large part of the surface of the earth, and showed their presence by the brilliant sunset glows to which they gave rise. Within the tropics they were at first borne along by air-currents at an estimated rate of about 73 m. an hour from east to west, until within a period of six weeks they were diffused over nearly the whole space between the latitudes 30° N. and 45° S. Eventually they spread northwards and southwards and were carried over North and South America, Europe, Asia, South Africa and Australasia. In the Old World they spread from the north of Scandinavia to the Cape of Good Hope.

Another remarkable result of this eruption was the world-wide disturbance of the atmosphere. The culminating paroxysm on the morning of the 27th of August gave rise to an atmospheric wave or oscillation, which, travelling outwards from the volcano as a centre, became a great circle at 180° from its point of origin, whence it continued travelling onwards and contracting till it reached a node at the antipodes to Krakatoa. It was then reflected or reproduced, travelling backwards again to the volcano, whence it once more returned in its original direction. “In this manner its repetition was observed not fewer than seven times at many of the stations, four passages having been those of the wave travelling from Krakatoa, and three those of the wave travelling from its antipodes, subsequently to which its traces were lost” (Sir R. Strachey).

The actual sounds of the volcanic explosions were heard over a vast area, especially towards the west. Thus they were noticed at Rodriguez, nearly 3000 English miles away, at Bangkok (1413 m.), in the Philippine Islands (about 1450 m.), in Ceylon (2058 m.) and in West and South Australia (from 1300 to 2250 m.). On no other occasion have sound-waves ever been perceived at anything like the extreme distances to which the detonations of Krakatoa reached.

Not less manifest and far more serious were the effects of the successive explosions of the volcano upon the waters of the ocean. A succession of waves was generated which appear to have been of two kinds, long waves with periods of more than an hour, and shorter but higher waves, with irregular and much briefer intervals. The greatest disturbance, probably resulting from a combination of both kinds of waves, reached a height of about 50 ft. The destruction caused by the rush of such a body of sea-water along the coasts and low islands was enormous. All vessels lying in harbour or near the shore were stranded, the towns, villages and settlements close to the sea were either at once, or by successive inundations, entirely destroyed, and more than 36,000 human beings perished. The sea-waves travelled to vast distances from the centre of propagation. The long wave reached Cape Horn (7818 geographical miles) and possibly the English Channel (11,040 m.). The shorter waves reached Ceylon and perhaps Mauritius (2900 m.).

See R. D. M. Verbeek, Krakatau (Batavia, 1886); “The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena,” Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, 1888).