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Krakatoa: Fire in the Skies

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Black and white sketch of the volcanic island of Krakatoa after the 1881 eruption. The island is depicted with smoke rising from the top and a small boat is seen in the foreground. Clouds are depicted in the sky on either side of the top of the volcano.
Krakatoa. Scientific American (New York, NY), November 3, 1883, vol. XLIX, no. 18, p. 279.

Skies at sunset blazed unearthly shades of chartreuse and crimson throughout the Fall of 1883. Newspapers from around the world reported the eerie phenomenon and described how the strange sight captivated the masses. Public response varied from the dumbfounded, to the delighted, to the dismayed. 

Many were left confused and awestruck by the curiosity. 

“Soon after 5 o’clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds. People in the streets were startled at the unwonted sight…The clouds gradually deepened to a bloody red hue, and a sanguinary flush was on the sea…” New York Times, November 28, 1883, p. 2. 

Some marveled at the brilliant vision and declared it a thing of beauty, while others perceived the aberration as part of an ominous prognostication.

Artists were among those mesmerized by the dramatic colors that enveloped the skies. Painter Edvard Munch witnessed the mysterious twilights seen in Norway. It is believed to be the inspiration for the swirling red sky depicted in his famous work “The Scream.”

One evening I was walking out on a hilly path near Kristiania—with two comrades—The sun was going down—It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven. The sky was like blood—sliced with strips of fire—I felt a great scream,” The Private Journals of Edvard Munch, p. 64-65. 

A detail image in color of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." The painting features a ghost-like figure at the center with an open mouth and hands raised to either side of the face. Swirls of red, orange and blue are at the top with blue swirls towards the bottom right.
The swirling red sky in “The Scream” (1893), believed to be inspired by the phenomenon witnessed by the artist Edvard Munch 

Years later, scientists finally uncovered the truth behind the anomaly and connected it to the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa, a small volcanic island in the Sunda Strait, located between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. 

On August 27, 1883, after a series of powerful explosions, a gigantic blast propelled ash more than 50 miles into the air and was heard nearly 2,800 miles away in Australia (a distance equal to the width of the United States from the east coast to the west coast). The violent eruption killed more than 36,000 people. While relatively few died from volcanic rock and gas, tens of thousands drowned in the series of tsunamis caused by the collapse of the volcano’s caldera. The tsunami that formed just after the climactic blast produced a 120 foot wave that wiped out a multitude of coastal villages on Java and Sumatra. 

The eruption sent six cubic miles of rock, ash, dust and debris into the atmosphere, and in the weeks following the disaster, a vast volcanic ash cloud had spread around the globe. The mix of scattered light and volcanic haze flared the skies with luminous red hues, giving sunsets the dramatic crimson effect seen around the world. 

In 1883, the Krakatoa eruption measured a 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), with a force estimated to be 200 megatons of TNT. To compare, the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 during WWII had a force of 20 kilotons, which is roughly 10,000 times less powerful than Krakatoa’s blast. It is also estimated that Krakatoa’s eruption was almost ten times more explosive than the cataclysmic explosion of Mount St. Helen in 1980 that registered as a 5 on the VEI. 

In addition to vivid skies, Krakatoa’s eruption left other long-lasting climate effects. According to later studies, the dust from the eruption that spread across the atmosphere likely caused a drop in average temperatures across the globe for several years. 

Although Krakatoa is not the most powerful volcanic eruption in history, it is perhaps the most famous. It became one of the first global catastrophes, due in large part to the newly installed worldwide telegraphic network that allowed newspapers to broadcast news of the eruption all over the world. 

A half page of a 1919 newspaper with the headline "How Volcanoes Affect Our Weather." There are two images with the text: one is of a volcano erupting with smoke billowing from the top (top left) and one is of the Earth with a mark with smoke billowing from a place on the map and going around the globe (center).
“How Volcanoes Affect Our Weather,” The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 29, 1919.

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  1. Thanks for this. Well-written and enjoyed reading about it. Y’all always do such a great job.

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