Next Wednesday, one week from today, will mark the one hundred twenty fifth anniversary of the catastrophic volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa, the first extraordinary natural disaster of the modern era of global communications.

The scope of the devastation was immense. Tens of thousands perished as entire villages were expunged, primarily through the action of an enormous tsunami, producing a wave which in places exceeded the height of a twelve story building. Billions of tons of ash, steam and volcanic pumice were cast into the stratosphere, coloring sunsets and affecting the climate for several successive years. The explosion was heard nearly three thousand miles away (as if a detonation in San Francisco were to create a blast that would be audible in Philadelphia), and the pressure wave circled the earth seven times before dissipating. Not even the explosion of the largest nuclear weapon approached the power of the destruction of Krakatoa. The island was simply blown to bits, and disappeared beneath the waves.

The event itself and, even more importantly, its crucial context and ramifications in the realms of geology, biology, meteorology, technology, culture, history and art, are related in substantial, at times even intricate detail, in Simon Winchester’s excellent work Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

Some few readers may be disgruntled by the general design of the work, a kind of vortex which initially spirals about the central event, placing it in the context of historical and scientific developments, ever more closely approaching the disastrous explosion of August 27, 1883. (Those wishing to focus exclusively upon the explosion, its immediate aftermath and consequences, might begin with chapter eight, but only at the cost of missing crucially relevant and intriguing elements of the tale.) Others will object to certain rather trivial details. (For instance, Winchester appears to have a deep antipathy toward Charles Darwin, peculiarly tinged with an irrational variant of class consciousness, which leads him to what can only be characterized as a seriously flawed perception of the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin. But the errant description is essentially peripheral to Winchester’s larger history.)

Despite such minor blemishes, Krakatoa is an excellent and unquestionably worthwhile book. As Richard Ellis wrote in the New York Times, “it is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.”

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 10:42 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] you might also check our earlier posts on the Yellowstone Supervolcano here, here and here, and this brief review of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa. Published […]

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