The Legendary Krakatau, Indonesia (Part 1)

There was no telephone or radio but the wireless telegraph had been invented some decades previously, and for the first time news of a great natural event was almost immediately available to countries around the world. The event indirectly affected such large areas of the earth and elicited such wide-spread interest that in January 1884 the Royak Society of London set up Krakatoa Commitee to report an the eruptionand its related phenomena, and French and Dutch investigatory teams visited the islands. (Indonesia was at that time the Dutch East Indies). The unusual meteorogical and climatic effects of the great belt of the ash circling above the earth, noted in many parts of the world, were soon related to the Krakatau eruption.

It has been suggested (although of course it is impossible to prove) that some of the finest paintings of the great British artist, JMW Turner, may have been inspired by the remarkable sunsets and afterglows seen in LOndon for six months after the great eruption of Tambora, on the INdonesian island of Sumbawa, in 1815. Tennyson could well have been similarly influenced by the meteorological phenomena resulting from Krakatau’s eruption when he wrote in the poem St Telemachus, published in 1892:

Has the fierce ashes of some fiery peak
Been hurled so high they ranged about the globe?
For day by day, thro’ many a blood-red eve

The wrathful sunset glared

Because the eruption’s effect were detected over parts of the planet many thousands of kilometers away, arousing worldwide interest, the Indonesian volcanologist John Katili, in Krakatau centenary lecture in Jakarta in 1983, used the quotation ‘one touch of nature’. This single natural event was seen to have important and obvious effects on the earth’s land, its ocean, its atmosphere, its climate, and at least in one area, on its living organisms. Moreover, in some cases the links between these were clearly evident. As a result of this ‘one touch of nature’, the modern holistic concept of the planet was dramatically demonstrated over a country.

IN the years since, the Krakatau event and its associated phenomena have been the focus of a wide spectrum of scholars and researchers, including historians, sociologists, geologists, volcanologists, geomorphologists, meteorologists, clomatologists, seismologists, botanists, zoologists, ecologists and biogeographers. Interaction of scientists has been not only between disciplines but also between generations, as investigators have built their studies on the fine pioneer work of their predecessors, sometimes making significant advances as a result.

There were no on-site witnesses of the event, and many of its basic features have been gradually clarified only after decades of volcanological research. The Dutch mining engineer RDM Verbeek had visited Krakatau in 1880, three years before the eruption. He returned in OCtober 1883, six weeks after it, to begin a series of investigation which led to a classic monograph on its volcanology (Verbeek 1884a,b, 1885). His outstanding work has provided on the basis and inspiration for many later investigators, and several of the conclusions he made more than a century ago still have much support from today’s earth scientists. R Vincent and G Camus, two french volcanologists who have recently worked on the Krakataus, have described him as a pioneer of modern volcanology (their stress) for his quantitative approach to volcanic phenomena (Vincent and Camus 1886). Stephen Self, another volcanologist who has studied the Krakatau eruption intensively in the field, has recently written that Werbeek’s remarkable treatise on Krakatau must be considered one of the most significant contributions to volcanology (Self 1992).

Verbeek concentrated on the petrology, the chemical and physical nature of the volcanic deposits. SOme forty years later another Dutch geologist, CE Stehn, made an intensive study of the stratigraphy of the deposits, the arrangement and order of deposition of the layers of volcanic products (Stehn 1929). Stehn’s visits were in 1922 and in 1928, when he was also monitoring the first signs of the birth of the new island Anak Krakatau. Inspite of these and other detailed on-site investigations, however, several important questions concerning those crucial twenty-four hours in August 1883 are still under discussion by the world’s volcanologists. The century-old event still has a special place in volcanological research.

The Krakatau group of islands also has a special interest to biologist. Two Dutch scientists were the principal investigators of the colonialization processes occurring on the Krakataus : KW Dammerman, the Director of the Bogor. All subsequent biological workers on the Krakataus owe a great deal to these two great pioneers. As is true of the work of their geological counterpart, Verbeek, many of the conclusions in their classics monographs are regarded as valid today, and many of their predictions have been proved correct (Docters van Leeuwen 196, Dammerman 1948)

An evolutionary biologist asked to name the most interesting island in the world would almost certainly choose volcanic archipelago, the Galapagos, which was colonized by living things a couple million hyears ago from continental sources over 600 km (375 miles) away and now provides fascinating examples of the results of evolutionary processes. Krakatau’s biological interest, however, like that of the volcanic island Surtsey in the North Atlantic, is of a different nature.

Surtsey emerged from the sea at a position about 50 km (0 miles) from the south coast of the Iceland in 1963. It is of course too young to have any evolutionary interest. Its interest is ecological, and Sturla Fridriksson and other Icelandic biologists grasped the opportunuty of carefully monitoring the colonialization of this biologically sterile, virgin island by living things, and the very early stages of the assemble of a cols-temperate community of plants and animals (FRidriksson 1975, 1995). ON Surtsey an ecosystem is beginning to form from scratch, from a standing start, naturally and on a large scale. Colonization had been slow, only the simplest of communities are now being developed, some thirty years after Surtsey’s emergence (Thronton 1984, Fridrikkson and Magnusson ¬†1992)

to be continue…

Krakatau: The Destruction and Reassembly of an Island Ecosystem
By Ian W. B. Thornton