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Krakatoa Rising?: Observing Mt. Sinabung from Greenfield, Wisconsin

In our most recent History Book Club, we discussed Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883.  For those who are not aware, Krakatoa was an island in modern-day Indonesia that was obliterated by the sheer volcanic force below, spewing dirt and rock miles upon miles into the earth’s atmosphere, affecting sunlight and temperature on a global, not just local stage.  The resulting tsunami waves killed at least a confirmed 36,000 people and estimates range that a possible 100,000 died as a result of the deadly volcano.  The boom was the loudest sound ever recorded, heard some 3000 miles away.  Bodies washed up in blocks of cooled volcanic rock as far away as Zanzibar, off the coast of Africa.  It was a truly awful and devastating natural disaster.

Indonesia sits on one of the hottest beds of volcanic activity in the world, part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”  Though we often link catastrophic volcanic eruptions with the term ‘Krakatoa,’ this particular volcano was not even the most violent in Indonesia in the 19th century, let alone all-time.  The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was the most violent volcano in recorded history.  The smoke and dust emitted (38 cubic miles of material) from Tambora blocked sun’s rays and dropped global temperatures so much that snow and frosts in distant North America were common through the month of June 1816.  Poor harvests made the year 1816 what many called “the year without a summer” and was the coldest since 1400 AD.

One of the questions that I posed to the Book Club, which met on January 28 was, “could this, or something like Krakatoa, happen again?”  The simple answer is very likely yes, due to plate tectonics, geographic location and a consistent recorded history of catastrophic volcanoes in this region.  Oddly, this question may start having an answer sooner than later.

Indonesia might be facing another large volcanic eruption; of what level of tenacity we do not know.  On February 1, 2014, just 3 days after the book discussion, clouds of flaming ash were blasted over a mile into the air out of Mount Sinabung, a formerly dormant volcano in Northern Sumatra killing fourteen people.  I could not help but remember how Simon Wincester explained in his book how for four to six months Krakatoa churned and moaned prior to that fateful August morning, but to a much lesser degree than the huge explosion.  At Mount Sinabung, the first disturbances began in September of 2013 with minor eruptions in November 2013 and January 2014, seemingly getting stronger and stronger.

Indonesia is not just a small country.  It is, and has been a fast-growing nation.  While there was no census data for Indonesia in 1883 when Krakatoa erupted, a census in the 1930s had Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) numbering around 60 million residents.  Today, that number is closer to 237 million and growing.  Some of the highest population-density areas of Indonesia today include Southeastern Sumatra and Western Java, where the national capital of Jakarta is located.  Right in the middle of these densely-populated close islands is the Sunda Strait… where Krakatoa once stood.  While Krakatoa has long since been blasted into the sky, a new island called Anak Krakatoa, or Son of Krakatoa, has been forming where Krakatoa had once been, growing out of the sea at the pace of twenty feet a year.  While it may take a while to grow as big and strong as dad, the potential for eventual eruption and subsequent catastrophic life-loss is definitely a possibility, especially with the much larger, and highly-compressed and dense population in these areas.

Now, I am not going to compare or declare that the eruptions occurring at Mount Sinabung are going to bring impending doom in just a couple months, as was the case of Krakatoa.  I am not saying that the end of the world is looming or will be in two months or anything like that; I’ll leave that to the scientists and mystics.  Geological and scientific research has grown leaps and bounds since the 19th century.  However, as much as scientists can predict eruptions, draw comparisons to other active volcanoes, and utilize this data to force locals to evacuate, the element of pure natural violence that is a large volcano is unstoppable no matter how many theories or formulas were devised to study it. 

Volcanoes, especially ones with such magnitude as Tambora or Krakatoa or Mt. Vesuvius are rare.  Yet, they do and have had occurred and will erupt again.  We don’t know at this point if Mount Sinabung will be the next Krakatoa or if anything of that magnitude can be predicted.  However, it is important as a society to become aware of these violent natural occurrences and how they affect global issues.  It is also important to acknowledge that an especially powerful volcano in Indonesia can and would have an effect not only in Asia, but also in Wisconsin or on a worldwide scale.

It is always interesting, especially after reading non-fiction, how one notices more attentively the subject they had just read about in everyday life and in current events, when they normally would never think about that topic otherwise.  I am happy that our History Book Club read Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and that even though it is over 130 years after the eruption, we still are learning and observing from this catastrophic event.

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