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‘Krakatoa’ Author on Iceland Volcano’s Parallels With Eruptions Past

April 16, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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For historical perspective on the Icelandic volcano eruption, Jeffrey Brown talks to Simon Winchester, author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883," about the massive 19th century eruption's impact on health, the economy and even art and literature.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Iceland today; the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883. We talk about nature’s power and impact now with Simon Winchester, author of “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.”

So, Mr. Winchester, what you have called a tiny pinprick in the Earth’s core explodes, and much of the world feels it. Remind us what happened in 1883.

SIMON WINCHESTER, author, “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded”: Well, it was much bigger, but it was still relatively, in planetary terms, a pinprick.

This was an island between Java and Sumatra in what was then the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. It began to misbehave in May 1883, and then, in August 1883, the entire island, in an absolutely titanic explosion, vaporized. The whole thing went up in what is probably the biggest explosion ever known in the Earth’s recent recorded history, anyway.

It was heard on the east coast of Africa, 5,000 miles away. It was a stunningly loud bang. But this vaporization of the island threw an immense amount of dust, I mean, trillions upon trillions tons of dust, which went very high, much higher than the eruption from Eyjafjallajokull, which is the Icelandic volcano today, 40,000, 50,000, 60,000 feet and higher.

And the extraordinary thing is that it — it had effects all over the world, principally, in those days, nothing to do with commerce, because, of course, there weren’t any aircraft, but it caused major coloration of the skies. The sunsets, particularly, were stunningly beautiful. And, immediately, artists picked up their paint brushes and their — their watercolor sets and started recording this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, yes, we actually have some of those. There is one we just put up here from Thomas Ashcroft is his name — or William Ashcroft. Excuse me, British.

SIMON WINCHESTER: William, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So — so — so…

SIMON WINCHESTER: He was amazing. He saw this on the River Thames, and was like a human sort of movie camera. Every 10 minutes, he would produce an image. And he produced — I think there are about 500 of them still in the Natural History Museum in London, an amazing, almost like a time-lapse photography series of pictures.

SIMON WINCHESTER: And then there was the — sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, no, I was — sorry.

I was just — I was fascinated to read that another, even more famous, very famous painting, “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, you say there’s research that suggests that that, even though painted a few years later, is still connected to Krakatoa?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes. I mean, you look at the amazing orange and purple swirls behind that haunting face, people say — Munch himself said, yes, it was painted in 1893, I think, but he remembered the time in 1883 in Oslo many months after the eruption, when the skies suddenly turned this extraordinarily lurid orange and purple color, something which, once seen, people like Ashcroft and Munch and American artists, like Frederic Church, who painted beautifully many, many Hudson River School paintings of the 1880s, dominated by the extraordinary post-Krakatoa sunsets.

So, it had an artistic legacy which is utterly memorable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you about the scientific legacy, because it’s also fascinating to think about — we just saw Ray Suarez‘s piece, and the news reports today, yes, we’re talking about disruption in air traffic. We’re talking about jet stream and airflows.

And I gather that a lot of what we know or what we began to know about flows of air came from Krakatoa.

SIMON WINCHESTER: No, you’re exactly right.

People realized that this — these sunsets, and these amazingly lurid colors were spreading around the world in a pattern. You know, first, Krakatoa is in the East Indies. They noticed it in Northern Australia. Then they noticed it in San Francisco. Then they noticed it in Poughkeepsie, New York, where, incidentally, people thought there were amazing fires breaking out, and fire brigades were dispatched, but only to find there was no fire. It was just an amazing sunset.

So, they decided to plot the progress of these colorations of the sky, and they found that the particles, which they knew were causing the coloration, were being swept around the world by what they called an equatorial smokescreen. This was a name given to it by a professor Bishop in Hawaii.

But they changed the name very soon thereafter from the equatorial smokescreen to what we know as the jet — jet stream. And it is an irony, is it not, that the device that is bringing the smoke down from Iceland, Northern Europe, today is the jet stream, the jet stream which was discovered as a benefit, one of the many benefits, of Krakatoa.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a good irony. It won’t help those people waiting for their planes, but it’s good, it’s interesting to know.

The other thing I want to ask you about with the science is, the Krakatoa also had important climate and health issues. So, as you — what — from what you have learned about what we know about that, help us think about what we’re seeing now that started in — the eruption that started in Iceland.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Well, this is very important.

I mean, the disruption of the air traffic is one thing, but the lowering of the ambient temperature of the world — after Krakatoa, it went back down worldwide by about half a Fahrenheit degree. It may not seem very much, but it is if you’re on the verge of — if you’re an iceberg on the verge of melting or freezing.

After the Tambora eruption, which was even bigger, in 1815, there was snowfall in Washington in July. Crops were terribly late all over the world. Mary Shelley, so miserable was the weather in Europe, wrote, apparently, according to many people, “Frankenstein,” because she was so bored with the awful weather post-Tambora.

JEFFREY BROWN: More great art — more great art coming from Krakatoa, right?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Great or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

SIMON WINCHESTER: But — but, yes, the weather — the weather impact is very important. And it may be important today. It may temporarily reverse global warming, but only — only temporarily.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the health issues related from the ash and…

SIMON WINCHESTER: Health issues are very — yes, they’re very serious.

Siliceous ash, if that gets into your lungs — I mean, silicosis is a disease that miners who work in stone mines suffer from. You get a lot of this into — particularly if you have asthma or something like that, it is quite dangerous.

So, you have got temperature, you have got health problems, you have got commercial problems, you have got art, you have got science from one tiny fissure in the Earth’s surface. It’s amazing, what can happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, Simon Winchester is the author of “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.”

Thanks for joining us.

SIMON WINCHESTER: Thanks very much indeed.