The loudest noise ever heard on earth did not come from a rock
music group, nor from a bomb exploding. It happened one
morning in August, 1883 in a part of the world thousands of miles
from the U.S. and Canada, and even thousands of miles more
from the then-dominant economic and military powers of the
world, all located in Europe.
That was 133 years ago, and although the intervening 20th
century held historic disasters, terrors, inventions, discoveries
and holocausts, there has really not been anything like it since.
It not only was the singular natural disaster of modern times,
it provided noteworthy turning points in modern political and
No one now alive was alive when it happened, and there were
no recordings, films, videos, smart phone photos , or even selfies
of it, and perhaps most amazing, very few persons today know
anything about it.
Believe it or not, it could happen again.
Let’s start with the facts.
We now know the center of the earth is made of very hot molten
material. We know that hot center is surrounded by a thick belt of
rock-like material which, for the most part, keeps the molten
material, from reaching the surface of the earth, either on the
ocean floor or the planet’s land surface. But there are exceptions.
The earth is covered with geologic “plates” at the top of the
rock-like belt containing the molten center. These plates, under
pressure from the hot center are in constant, but very slow, motion,
and on occasion collide with each other along “fault” lines. The
movement of the plates and the faults is very, very slow, but also
results in huge pressures that, from time to time, are relieved by
land or sea earthquakes or through volcano explosions. There are,
in fact, thousands of small earthquakes taking place every year,
and numerous “active’ volcanoes spewing out steam and/or lava.
Scientists have learned much about all of this over the past
century, and have created some very sophisticated devices and
equipment not only to detect earthquakes and volcanic activity,
but also to try to predict them before they happen. Every year
or so, we observe major seismic events whose natural power is
measured by a Richter scale formula. Seismic events above about
5.5 on this scale are not only widely felt, they can cause major
damage, and injury especially above the 6.5 level. Each decimal on
this scale represents double the energy produced by a seismic event.
Thus, an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale has ten
times the power and energy of a similar event that measures 7.0.
Seismic prediction, however, so far cannot be more than guesswork,
and probabilities of when new earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
will occur are expressed in decades or longer.
There were two major eruptions of the volcano on the island of
Krakatoa in 1883, and although the second one was by far the
largest, and the one known best in history, the first one made some
special history of its own.
The small island of Krakatoa is located in the Sunda Straits, a few
miles to the west of today’s Indonesian large island of Java. Java is
part of a group of geologic islands that then was then known as the
Dutch East Indies, and was located between Australia and the Asian
mainland that included French Indochina, Burma and Malaysia.
The great nearby British and Portuguese colonial port cities of
Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau were then in their heyday. The
Dutch had begun to colonize this group of islands in the early 17th
century, and had been cruel and exploitive masters of the mostly
Islamic native population. On Java was located the colonial capital
of Batavia (now Jakarta) where the the Dutch governor general
ruled in the name of the Dutch king.
On Sunday, May 20, 1883, residents in the area nearby the small
island of Krakatoa first became aware that its volcano was
becoming active. A tall thin plume of white smoke arose from the
peak of its 2500-foot cone-shaped mountain, as ash and pumice
filled the air and settled on everything in its path. By May 23rd,
word reached the nearby colonial capital where recently installed
transoceanic telegraph cable ( a recent invention) was connected to
a Lloyd’s of London insurance agency office. At about 3:40 p.m.
that afternoon the telegraph operator sent a message about the
eruption at Krakatoa to London where it was received a few hours
later. In the next day’s edition (May 24) of the London Times
appeared a 19-word article:
“Volcanic Eruption. Lloyd’s Agent in Batavia, under date
of May 23rd, telegraphs “Strong Volcanic Eruption.
Krakatowa Island, Sunda Straits.”
Thus, began humanity’s first real-time global communications
on the planet Earth, something which the whole world takes for
granted today, and which in its latest form includes satellite
television transmission and the internet. If you will, it was
civilization’s first true sense of globalization. Fascination with
the volcanic eruption in the little South Pacific island instantly
went, in today’s terms, viral. This worldwide interest was, it
should also be noted, eagerly promoted by the only international
news establishment of that time, Reuter news service.
But Krakatoa soon went silent, with only a small continuing
white plume rising in the sky to indicate that beneath its surface
something was still going on. In Java and nearby islands all went
back to normal. The world, and the neighborhood, soon lost
Until Monday, August 27, 1883 at 10:02 a.m.
Twenty hours and fifty-six minutes earlier, on a warm and sunny
Sunday afternoon, the first explosions at Krakatoa were heard,
and they continued throughout the night with smoke, pumice and
volcanic fire increasingly filling up the sky and sending huge waves
into the Straits.
But at precisely 10:02 a.m. there occurred something never before
recorded or experienced by modern human beings, a noise so
violent and loud that it was actually heard thousands of miles
away. This climaxing explosion utterly destroyed the entire land
mass of the island and the volcano, and sent it in billions of dust
particles for miles into the air, and then around the world. The
blast changed global climate for years. The resulting two
gigantic sea waves or tsunamis did most of the human damage,
killing most of the 36.417 fatalities and all of the 165 villages
destroyed. Hundreds of thousands were injured, and probably
millions were displaced. On the island of Rodriguez, 2968 miles
from Krakatoa, the explosion was heard. To this day, it remains
“the longest distance ever known between the place where
unamplified and electrically unenhanced natural sound was
heard and the place where the same sound originated.” A popular
science writer of that time explained to his readers what that
meant --- someone in Philadelphia hearing a sound in real time
that originated in San Francisco.
The volcano of Krakatoa disappeared from view, but it did not
go away. Over the past thirteen decades, it has continued to be
active under the sea, and, in fact, has created a new Krakatoa
island with another cone-shaped small mountain, Since the 1883
eruption, seismologists has learned a great deal about the
ever-changing geology of the earth, the tectonic plates which
cover it on land and under the sea, and much more scientific
understanding of earthquakes volcanoes and tsunamis.
There were also political consequences from Krakatoa. Simon
Winchester, author of Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded
(HarperCollins, 2003), points out that Krakatoa helped inspire
one of the first Islamic fundamentalist anti-Western movements
in modern times, a movement partly provoked by a local cleric’s
earlier prophecy that a volcano would erupt, and partly by a
then-small group of radical Islamic figures in Saudi Arabia who
used the eruption as an opportunity to incite terror against the
Dutch in southeast Asia. The Dutch army suppressed this
movement at the time, but Indonesia gained its independence in
1949, and is today the largest Moslem nation on earth (total
population of 260 million). It still lies on major Pacific Ocean
fault lines, and a new Arak Krakatoa island still sends up a thin
cloud of white steam into the air.
(Winchester’s excellent book is recommended for those who
want to learn more about the details of the Krakatoa event.)
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.