The 1883 Krakatoa Explosion Made the Loudest Sound in History–So Loud It Traveled Around the World Four Times

Think of our­selves though we may as liv­ing in a noisy era, none of us — not even mem­bers of sta­di­um-fill­ing rock bands known specif­i­cal­ly for their high-deci­bel inten­si­ty — have expe­ri­enced any­thing like the loud­est sound in his­to­ry. That sin­gu­lar son­ic event came as a con­se­quence of the explo­sion of Kraka­toa, one of the names (along with Vesu­vius) that has become a byword for vol­canic dis­as­ter. And with good cause: when it blew in mod­ern-day Indone­sia on Sun­day, 26 August 1883, it caused not only 36,000 deaths at the very least and untold destruc­tion of oth­er kinds, but let out a sound heard 3,000 miles away.

“Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is,” writes Nau­tilus’ Aatish Bha­tia. “If you’re in Boston and some­one tells you that they heard a sound com­ing from New York City, you’re prob­a­bly going to give them a fun­ny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talk­ing about here is like being in Boston and clear­ly hear­ing a noise com­ing from Dublin, Ire­land. Trav­el­ing at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilo­me­ters per hour), it takes a noise about four hours to cov­er that dis­tance. This is the most dis­tant sound that has ever been heard in record­ed his­to­ry.”

Any­one who writes about the sound of Kraka­toa, which split the island itself, strug­gles to prop­er­ly describe it, see­ing as even jet mechan­ics lack a com­pa­ra­ble son­ic expe­ri­ence. Bha­tia quotes the cap­tain of the British ship Norham Cas­tle, 40 miles from Kraka­toa when it erupt­ed, writ­ing in his log that “so vio­lent are the explo­sions that the ear-drums of over half my crew have been shat­tered. My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am con­vinced that the Day of Judge­ment has come.” Kraka­toa’s rever­ber­a­tions – not heard, but felt and record­ed as changes in atmos­pher­ic pres­sure – passed across the whole of the Earth not once but four times.

The sound of the explo­sion aside, “the rest of the world heard such sto­ries almost instant­ly because a series of under­wa­ter tele­graph cables had been recent­ly laid tra­vers­ing the globe,” writes the Inde­pen­dent’s San­ji­da O’Con­nell. “This new tech­nol­o­gy meant that Kraka­toa also gen­er­at­ed the first mod­ern sci­en­tif­ic study of a vol­canic erup­tion.” A Dutch sci­en­tist named Rogi­er Ver­beek turned up first to gath­er details for a detailed and pio­neer­ing report, fol­lowed by geol­o­gists from Lon­don’s Roy­al Soci­ety, whose 627-page The Erup­tion of Kraka­toa and Sub­se­quent Phe­nom­e­na you can read at the Inter­net Archive.

Since nobody would have got the explo­sion on tape in 1883, such ver­bal descrip­tions will have to suf­fice. Not that even today’s high­est-grade record­ing tech­nol­o­gy could with­stand cap­tur­ing such a sound, nor could even speak­ers that go up to a Spinal Tap-lev­el 11 repro­duce it. And no oth­er sound is like­ly to break Kraka­toa’s record in our life­times – not if we’re lucky, any­way.

via Nau­tilus

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

The Web Site “Cen­turies of Sound” is Mak­ing a Mix­tape for Every Year of Record­ed Sound from 1860 to Present

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Cour­tesy of the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Map­ping the Sounds of Greek Byzan­tine Church­es: How Researchers Are Cre­at­ing “Muse­ums of Lost Sound”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.