Friday, June 09, 2006


The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester

Non-fiction, Earth Science

I have to admit it. I'm a big geek when it comes to disasters. I love National Geographic specials on earthquakes, floods, and tornados, and if I got the Discovery Channel you can bet that I would be watching that too. So a book on one of the largest volcanic explosions in the history of mankind is right up my alley. (In contrast, Mt. St. Helens' explosion a little over two decades ago barely registers on the scale, and Mt. Mazama - the caldera of which forms Crater Lake in Oregon - is considered pretty decent, but not quite as big.)

So Winchester's book is the ideal non-fiction reading for my tastes. The book details the events leading up to the explosion of the island known as the forested paradise of Krakatau (he explains how the likely misspelling of the word led to the infamy of the incorrect Krakatoa), including the political climate of the Dutch colony at the time. While this may make readers impatient for the explosion and immediate aftermath, Winchester's timeline allows the reader to better understand the social aftermath of the destruction, and the consequences that have carried on through until today.

The explosion was, by any standards, horrifying in its death toll; the tsunami caused by the collapse of the smoking island had bodies washing ashore thousands of miles away. The sound from the explosion was heard almost three thousand miles away, making it the loudest unaided sound ever heard. (For comparison, this would be the same as if someone in Washington, D.C., had heard the explosion of Mt. St. Helens - a sound that people were surprised to have heard two or three hundred miles from its source.) And the plume from the volcano induced a drop in global temperature that persisted for two years.

But more than anything else, the fifth biggest explosion in global history (that we can measure from geological studies) gains its infamy from the technology that had only been introduced: the telegraph. News of the explosion and its aftermath traveled around the globe while those effects were still being felt. Another new technology, the barograph (an ancestor of the seismograph), introduced for the first time the ability to track seismic events from other parts of the world, and the pattern of such effects.

And most of all, the author is quick to point out, one must remember this: a still-active Krakatoa is growing, and may one day explode again.


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