The Volcanic Eruption at Krakatoa

News Carried by Telegraph Cables Hit the Newspapers Within Hours

Illustration of volcanic island of Krakatoa before it blew apart.
Illustration of volcanic island of Krakatoa before it blew apart. Kean Collection/Getty Images

The eruption of the volcano at Krakatoa in the western Pacific Ocean in August 1883 was a major disaster by any measure. The entire island of Krakatoa was simply blown apart, and the resulting tsunami killed tens of thousands of people on other islands in the vicinity.

The volcanic dust thrown into the atmosphere affected the weather around the world, and people as far away as Britain and the United States eventually began to see bizarre red sunsets caused by particles in the atmosphere.

It would take years for scientists to connect the spooky red sunsets with the eruption at Krakatoa, as the phenomenon of dust being thrown into the upper atmosphere was not understood. But if the scientific effects of Krakatoa remained murky, the volcanic eruption in a remote part of the world had a nearly immediate impact on heavily populated regions.

The events at Krakatoa were also significant because it was one of the first times that detailed descriptions of a colossal news event traveled around the world quickly, carried by undersea telegraph wires. Readers of daily newspapers in Europe and North America were able to follow current reports of the disaster and its enormous implications.

In the early 1880s Americans had grown used to receiving news from Europe by undersea cables. And it wasn't unusual to see happenings in London or Dublin or Paris described within days in newspapers in the American West.

But the news from Krakatoa seemed much more exotic, and was coming from a region which most Americans could barely contemplate. The idea that events on a volcanic island in the western Pacific could be read about within days at the breakfast table was a revelation. And so the remote volcano became an event that seemed to make the world grow smaller.

The Volcano at Krakatoa

The great volcano on the island of Krakatoa (sometimes spelled as Krakatau or Krakatowa) loomed over the Sunda Strait, between the islands of Java and Sumatra in present day Indonesia.

Before the 1883 eruption, the volcanic mountain reached a height of approximately 2,600 feet above sea level. The slopes of the mountain were covered with green vegetation, and it was a notable landmark to sailors passing through the straits.

In the years preceding the massive eruption several earthquakes occurred in the area. And in June 1883 small volcanic eruptions began to rumble across the island. Throughout the summer the volcanic activity increased, and tides at islands in the area began to be affected.

The activity kept accelerating, and finally, on August 27, 1883, four massive eruptions came from the volcano. The final colossal explosion destroyed two-thirds of the island of Krakatoa, essentially blasting it into dust. Powerful tsunamis were triggered by the force.

The scale of the volcanic eruption was enormous. Not only was the island of Krakatoa shattered, other small islands were created. And the map of the Sunda Strait was changed forever.

Local Effects of the Krakatoa Eruption

Sailors on ships in nearby sea lanes reported astounding events associated with the volcanic eruption. The sound was loud enough to break the eardrums of some crewmen on ships many miles away. And pumice, or chunks of solidified lava, rained from the sky, pelting the ocean and the decks of ships.

The tsunamis set off by the volcanic eruption rose as high as 120 feet, and slammed into the coastlines of the inhabited islands of Java and Sumatra. Entire settlements were wiped away, and it is estimated that 36,000 people died.

Distant Effects of the Krakatoa Eruption

The sound of the massive volcanic eruption traveled enormous distances across the ocean. At the British outpost on Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean more than 2,000 miles from Krakatoa, the sound was clearly heard. People in Australia also reported hearing the explosion. It is possible that Krakatoa created one of the loudest sounds ever generated on earth, rivaled only by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815.

Pieces of pumice were light enough to float, and weeks after the eruption large pieces began drifting in with the tides along the coast of Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Some of the large pieces of volcanic rock had animal and human skeletons embedded in them. They were grisly relics of Krakatoa.

The Krakatoa Eruption Became a Worldwide Media Event

Something that made Krakatoa different from other major events in the 19th century was the introduction of the transoceanic telegraph cables.

The news of Lincoln’s assassination less than 20 years earlier had taken nearly two weeks to reach Europe, as it had to be carried by ship. But when Krakatoa erupted, a telegraph station at Batavia (present day Jakarta, Indonesia) was able to send the news to Singapore. Dispatches were relayed quickly, and within hours newspaper readers in London, Paris, Boston, and New York were beginning to be informed of the colossal events in the distant Sunda Straits.

The New York Times ran a small item on the front page of August 28, 1883 — carrying a dateline from the day before — relaying the first reports tapped out on the telegraph key in Batavia:

“Terrific detonations were heard yesterday evening from the volcanic island of Krakatoa. They were audible at Soerkrata, on the island of Java. The ashes from the volcano fell as far as Cheribon, and the flashes proceeding from it were visible in Batavia.”

The initial New York Times item also noted that stones were falling from the sky, and that communication with the town of Anjier “is stopped and it is feared there has been a calamity there.” (Two days later the New York Times would report that the European settlement of Anjiers had been “swept away” by a tidal wave.)

The public became fascinated with the news reports about the volcanic eruption. Part of that was due to the novelty of being able to receive such distant news so quickly. But it was also because the event was so enormous and so rare.

The Eruption at Krakatoa Became a Worldwide Event

Following the eruption of the volcano, the area near Krakatoa was enveloped in a strange darkness, as dust and particles blasted into the atmosphere blocked sunlight. And as winds in the upper atmosphere carried the dust great distances, people on the other side of the world began to notice the effect.

According to a report in the Atlantic Monthly magazine published in 1884, some sea captains had reported seeing sunrises that were green, with the sun remaining green throughout the day. And sunsets around the world turned a vivid red in the months following the Krakatoa eruption. The vividness of the sunsets continued for nearly three years.

American newspaper articles in late 1883 and early 1884 speculated on the cause of the widespread phenomenon of "blood red" sunsets. But scientists today know that dust from Krakatoa blown into the high atmosphere was the cause.

The Krakatoa eruption, massive as it was, was actually not the largest volcanic eruption of the 19th century. That distinction would belong to the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815.

The Mount Tambora eruption, as it happened before the invention of the telegraph, was not as widely known. But it actually had a more devastating impact as it contributed to bizarre and deadly weather the following year, which became known as The Year Without a Summer.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Volcanic Eruption at Krakatoa." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). The Volcanic Eruption at Krakatoa. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Volcanic Eruption at Krakatoa." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).