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.
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.
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.
- Search Chronicling America* to find newspaper coverage of the eruption of Krakatoa and more!
- Check out this Chronicling America guide on the Krakatoa Volcano Eruption that provides search strategies and selected articles.
- The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena, Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (1888)
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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