Tambora vs. Krakatoa: Which was Worse?


An April 27 Wall Street Journal book review by Simon Winchester descends into a petty squabble about whether the volcanic eruptions on Mount Tambora (1815) and Krakatoa (1883), both located in Indonesia, was more significant. After a few positive paragraphs reviewing Gillen D'Arcy Wood's Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, Winchester takes exception to Wood's comparison of the Tambora eruption with that of Krakatoa. Winchester writes:

"I have one argument. Mr. Wood's intention in writing the story of Tambora, in time for its bicentenary, is to stake the eruption's claim for global primacy—to knock Krakatoa off its long-held pedestal. The celebrity of [Krakatoa's] more modest eruption in 1883 seems undeserved,' he writes. 'Only the historical accident of the telegraph's invention allowed news of it to travel instantly across the world.'"

Which is the More Significant?

Winchester introduces his defense of Krakatoa, admitting that he has a "dog in the fight," as author ofKrakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. He claims that Krakatoa "was the biggest volcanic explosion in what one may call fully recorded human history." He then spends a third of the article seeking to prove that the Krakatoa eruption was the more significant than that of Tambora.

Winchester describes the Krakatoa eruption and how the rapid communications that had recently become available amplified its significance in  the decades that followed. He points out that there were more than 40,000 fatalities and that Krakatoa generated the most extensive tsunami ever generated by a volcano. Finally, he claims that Krakatoa "contributed to the creation of the Republic of Indonesia."

I have long asked the same question that Woods poses and concluded that history had slighted Tambora. So, I spent some time the other evening reacquainting myself with the subject, using Internet sources (such as Wikipedia), which do not rise to academic standards, but certainly paint a picture supporting Woods' position.

As for the 40,000 fatalities, there appears to be no question but that fatalities from Tambora were nearly twice as great. It is not really surprising that Krakatoa is a more extensive tsunami than Tambora, since Krakatoa was a fairly modest mountain (less than 3,000 feet or 1,000 meters) sitting in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Much of the volcano collapsed into the sea, which will obviously produce a larger tsunami than when the mountain is at least 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the sea and principally collapsed upon itself, rather than the sea.

The claim that the Krakatoa eruption was instrumental in creating the Republic of Indonesia is bizarre. Krakatoa surely did not provide any incentive to the Dutch to rule longer, or for the Indonesians to extend colonial rule. Indonesia was among the first to shake off colonialism following World War II (1945). Nor is it likely that an unexploded Krakatoa would have advanced independence to before the War.

Fully Recorded History as of 1981: St. Helen's Exceeds Krakatoa

Winchester overreaches in noting that Krakatoa was the "biggest volcanic explosion "in fully recorded human history." Fully recorded human history is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, the Krakatoa eruption was not recorded by motion pictures or video, which were not yet invented and did not thus occur in "fully recorded history" as we know it.

For example, in 1981, a few months after Washington's Mount St. Helen's blew its side out, it would have been fair to characterize its 1980 eruption as being more significant than Krakatoa, by virtue of having been captured on video (and thus in "fully recorded history” at them time). Certainly, scientists have learned much from Mount St. Helens. However, its greater significance due to its capture on video was a function of technology, not volcanism.

Tambora's Significance

By any measure, Tambora was a substantially larger volcanic eruption that Krakatoa. Its Volcanic Explosive Index (VEI) was 7, the only confirmed rating of that intensity since the Lake Taupo eruption in New Zealand 1,600 years before. By comparison, Krakatoa earned a VEI of only 6. Further, Tambora spewed a far greater volume, at 38 cubic miles (160 cubic kilometers). By comparison, Krakatoa's volume was less than one-third that of Tambora, at 11 cubic miles (45 cubic kilometers). Both ejected far greater volumes than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens (less than one quarter cubic mile or one cubic kilometer), which had a VEI of 5.

Moreover, Tambora set off the "year without summer" in 1816, when a June snow storm dumped six to twelve inches (15 to 30 centimeters) on northern New England and snow drifts of two feet (60 centimeters) in the ville de Quebec.

Indonesia's Disasters

Interestingly, neither the Tambora nor the Krakatoa eruption ranks as the largest in Indonesian history (or perhaps more properly, pre-history). The Lake Toba eruption on Sumatra occurred 75,000 years ago and is reputed to have been the most intensive in the world in the last 2 million years. Lake Toba ejected approximately 675 cubic miles (2,800 cubic kilometers) of material. This is 17 times the Tambora volume and more than 60 times the Krakatoa volume. But none of the three killed as many people (230,000) as the Boxing Day tsunami (December 26, 2004), which was set off by a 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra. Population had exploded between 1883 and 2004, which drove the Boxing Day tsunami fatalities far above those of the Krakatoa tsunami.

Tambora v. Krakatoa: Volcanism v. Telecommunications

Winchester confuses technology with history. Woods is exactly right. But for the historical accident of the telegraph, Krakatoa might have been as largely forgotten, not unlike another VEI-6 event --- the 1912 Novarupta volcanic eruption in Alaska. Had the telecommunications of 1815 been equal to those of 1883, no one would remember Krakatoa. Telecommunications explains its prominence, not volcanism.


Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He was appointed to the Amtrak Reform Council to fill the unexpired term of Governor Christine Todd Whitman and has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: Tambora: Depiction of 1815 Eruption (from http://cdn-2.vivalascuola.it/o/orig/scienze-classificazione-vulcanica_b2a5e9a592a9ff2585850e6b6006f595.jpg


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possible volcanic eruption 535

Geography student

An interesting article. One possible volcanic eruption that certainly appears to have had a similar global effect if not worse one is the eruption of 535 AD, as evidenced by tree ring, ice core and observations about the summer at that time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extreme_weather_events_of_535%E2%80%93536 or use search terms "tree ring data eruption no summer AD".

During that period there was much less communication and written documentation than even in 1816 so even less is know about this eruption.

Controversially this 535 AD eruption may have set of significant changes in human history.