Saturday, September 8, 2012

On "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester ****

I came across mention of this book in a book on world history. It surprised me to learn that the eruption of this volcano back in the early AD disrupted weather patterns and created a famine, that we know this, that this is in the historical record. As it turns out, the historian was perhaps a bit too certain about what happened, at least that was my sense after reading this book.

Winchester isn't as quick to ascribe volcanic eruptions to earlier centuries, though he does talk about them, one around 535 AD and one in 1680. The reason he's less certain is that the historical witness accounts are not entirely reliable, but if other facts in history around the world confirm, perhaps he shouldn't be so conservative. Of course, he's not conservative about the 1883 eruption, because there are plenty of accounts of it, and it is that eruption that is most of the focus of this book.

The eruption occurred at a time when telegraph lines were first making it possible to report news almost instantly, and Winchester talks about how newspapers competed to get to news first. In this case, an English paper managed to beat a German news service to the scoop. Not that it matters to us now, but I'm sure it mattered to the people involved.

Also discussed is the science behind plate tectonics and the history of that theory (drummed up by a "crackpot" generalist and only grudgingly accepted decades later, after his death). Krakatoa, as with all of Indonesia, the set of islands in which it rests, is the result of a hot zone, where two plates converge and the earth's magma comes to the surface, and all of this fairly quickly. The island disappeared completely after the 1883 eruption, but within a few decades, it had reestablished itself above the sea. This too leads to some interesting questions, like how does life come to such an island? Winchester devotes a chapter to this as well, the surprising array of creatures that show up. First, often, are insects--spiders or ants borne on the wind. The plants--again, seeds borne on the wind. How exactly rats get on such an island, I'm not sure, but it's likely the result of stowing away on some human visitor's boat.

It was the biological difference between islands to the west and east of the area that first led to some of the ideas about plate tectonics. The creatures are quite different on either side, showing that the land on either side was one not so close together.

Many died in the 1883 eruption--or really, in its aftermath, the tidal waves that it spawned. Such would have seemed hard to imagine to me a decade ago, but in light of the horrible tidal wave in Asia a few winter's ago and then the one in Japan last year, such events unfortunately no longer seem so impossible. Stories are told in the book of children finding the bones of the dead on beaches thousands of miles away.

The eruption also led to a wave of Islamic unrest in Indonesia. Inspired by the supposed end of the world, some Muslims attempted to overthrow their colonial Danish overseers. Winchester attempts to summarize the tensions between East and West that reverberate to our own day.

But some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the discussions of the weather and how that changed. So much ash ended up in the sky that sunsets were glorious for a year afterward, even as the temperature of the planet dropped by several degrees and crops took a matching hit. We live in a precarious state on this planet.

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