By Kunda Dixit, Nepali Times
I found myself in Jakarta last week as news started coming in of the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.
Having covered the fury of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and its aftermath in the Philippines in 1991, there was a feeling of deja vu as the news channels displayed pyroclastic flows and ash clouds soaring into the stratosphere. Sure enough, airports throughout Europe shut down one by one. Trans-Atlantic flights were canceled. Until press time, no one seemed to know how long it would last.
Pinatubo went on for two weeks. I remember day turning into night and the sight of the snow-like white ash on the streets of Manila. This wasn’t soft powder. The wiper in my car made a screeching noise as tiny glass particles scratched the windshield.
For weeks, our apartment rocked gently as the eruption set off tremors, and we stopped even noticing the quakes. Airports were closed, highways blocked, and the eruption hastened the departure of the American military from the Philippines after the destruction of military bases at Angeles and Subic Bay. Decades later, lahar floods were still changing the geography of central Luzon.
Yet, Pinatubo was a tiny firework display compared to the eruptions of Tambora in 1815, the famous Krakatoa volcano in 1883 and the super-eruption of Toba 70,000 years ago. All three volcanoes are in Indonesia and were cataclysms with long-term global impact.
The Toba mega-volcano was so violent, the planet was shrouded in a dust cloud and the sun didn’t shine for 10 years, setting off a mini Ice Age. Deposits of ash up to 6 meters deep can still be detected in the Malaya peninsula. Much life on the planet became extinct and emerging humans were nearly wiped out. Those complaining about Eyjafjallajokull should be glad it isn’t a Toba.
In 1815, it was the turn of Mt. Tambora on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. Ash fell throughout Southeast Asia killing nearly 80,000 people. With the sun blocked off, 1816 was known as the “year without summer” all over the world. There was a famine and starvation spread across Asia and Europe.
A Tambora today is unthinkable, but it could happen any day.
Those whose interest in volcanoes has been piqued by this week’s eruption in Iceland should get hold of Simon Winchester’s fascinating book, Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded.
The explosive eruption of Krakatoa 127 years ago wiped out a mountain and an entire chunk of an island in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java. The explosion was heard 4,000 km away in Madras, “the loudest sound ever heard by human ears.” A tsunami 80-100m high killed 40,000 people and obliterated entire towns.
Today, it would kill at least 4 million. Winchester says this was the first “global event” because it coincided with the development of the telegraph and the laying of the first under sea cable linking Asia with Europe. Sketchy news of the eruption reached Europe nearly as it happened. The apocalyptic disaster turned some Indonesian Muslims into fundamentalists and gave birth to Asia’s first anti-colonial independence movement.
Winchester’s most chilling prediction is that the pressure will build up again in the magma chamber below Krakatoa and there will be another eruption. It may be tomorrow, or it may be 100 years from now. If it is not Krakatoa, it will be one of the hundreds of active super volcanoes in Indonesia, Alaska or even the caldera in the Yellowstone National Park.
Our wars, the petty geopolitics, the competition for natural resources, globalization and even climate change will pale in comparison to the planetary cataclysm that will befall us one day.
This was the thought racing through my mind as our plane took off from Jakarta last Tuesday and we looked down at the inky blue Sunda Strait merging with an azure sky and, far off in the distance between the green expanses of Sumatra and Java, the tiny island known as Anak Krakatoa (the son of Krakatoa). Everything looked idyllic, but from this point on the morning of 27 August 1883, it must have looked like the end of the world.
(Republished with permission of the author)
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(Photos: Eyjafjallajokull eruption, Gudmundur Pall Olafsson/Nepali Times)
Kunda Dixit is publisher of Nepali Times and author of several books, including the trilogy on the conflict in Nepal: A People’s War, Never Again, and People after War.