Thursday, August 16, 2007

Subduction seduction

Volcanoes are fascinating because of their unpredictability and, paradoxically, their constancy.

In 1980, when I was a wee toddler and my parents and I were living in central Washington, Mount St. Helens erupted. We moved back to the City shortly after that. But my younger sisters, born later, would only learn about the eruption in school and from La Madre, who loved to tell them that I was cranky for days because I wasn’t allowed to play outside due to the falling ash.

I finally read Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. Years ago, I’d read Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and couldn’t put it down; his The Map That Changed the World had the opposite effect. But Krakatoa was good.

The book isn’t just about the volcanic eruption in 1883 in present-day Indonesia. It’s more about the technological and scientific advances (Western ones, that is) that enabled the rest of the world to learn about the incident. Winchester spends more chapters setting the stage for the 19th century event than he does the actual eruption itself. He details (and I do mean details) developments in:

  • communication (telegraphs, news agencies)
  • trade (the various natural resources found in Java and Sumatra, the history of the Dutch presence and colonial administration there)
  • biology (how observations, many of the differences in Sumatra and Java, shaped theories of evolution)
  • geology (there was the usual Plate Tectonics 101 as well as more in-depth stuff)
  • climatology (barometric readings from around the world showed how “air waves” from the eruption circled the globe, and tidal measurements showed similar results from the ocean waves generated by the eruption)
  • and tangential but interesting other pieces of information.

All of these details and back stories are fascinating, and Winchester does a good job of keeping the reader’s attention. He really only has one very long chapter about the eruption itself, where he takes accounts from various ships’ logs, administrators’ records, and survivors’ letters or other reports; and then focuses on how the eruption served as valuable knowledge-building for various fields of science. Indeed, Winchester’s central argument is that Krakatoa was the first truly “global” event, where new innovations allowed it to be reported and studied around the world almost immediately.

”Krakatoa” almost instantly calls to mind tragedy and disaster, much like “Titanic.” But for some odd reason, before reading this book I would always confuse the eruption of Tambora in 1815 with Krakatoa in 1883 (there are, after all, something like 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia). I knew that some eruption in Indonesia in 1815 caused the “year without a summer” elsewhere in the world, but I always assumed it was Krakatoa. Oops. After reading this book, I won’t confuse Tambora and Krakatoa any longer!

I learned a lot about the development of scientific and academic fields in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I learned more about the 1883 eruption too. I assumed Krakatoa’s destructive reputation originated with fiery displays and dramatic lava flows. I didn't know it was a Plinian eruption, nor that most of the human cost of Krakatoa was from the huge tsunamis generated by the explosion, not anything coming from the volcano itself. (Winchester wrote the book in 2003, two years before the horrible, horribly huge one occurred in the Indian Ocean. Unlike the last geology-oriented book I read, Winchester didn’t have to emphasize emergency preparedness to get grant money for his book.)

The author makes it powerfully clear that what humans can’t see beneath the earth is far from being understood even remotely, and that the earth is quite frankly capable of mind-bogglingly scary things (Krakatoa’s final eruption was heard 3,000 miles away; the air shocks circled the earth seven times; tides everywhere were affected; the dust particles that shot 30 miles in the air caused sunsets so red all around the world that firefighters in one American town thought it was a distant fire; and the island of Krakatoa itself imploded into nothing.) Another overriding theme that Winchester does not fail to make clear to his reader is that eruptions like Krakatoa are not a one-time deal, that the earth is constantly reshaping its surface from its core. All that is very interesting from a detached standpoint --but if I look down the street I can see Mt. Rainier looking suspiciously peaceful in the distance! It is indeed scary but also strangely and hypnotically humbling, too.

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