“Judgement Day,” by Alpha Unit

The British cargo ship Norham Castle, built in Glasgow, was launched in 1869 as a tea clipper for the trade with China. Clipper ships, sleek and three-masted, were designed for speed. Their production took off in the 1840s because of a growing demand for faster delivery of tea from China.

The Norham Castle transported tea and eventually mixed cargoes to places including Australia and New Zealand. In 1883 she was sailing near the Sunda Strait, which is located between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. It just so happens that most of Indonesia’s more than 130 active volcanoes lie between Java and Sumatra, the most famous being the stratovolcano (the steepest and most deadly kind) known to Westerners as Krakatoa.

By the summer of 1883 seismic activity around Krakatoa had been intensifying for months, producing earthquakes, steam venting, and ash eruptions. The three peaks of Krakatoa served as an exit for a huge magma chamber beneath. There is some speculation that an earlier eruption had clogged the neck of one of the peaks, creating an incredible amount of pressure building up below the blockage. The volcano was overdue for a climax.

Around 1:00 p.m. on August 26, a volcanic eruption sent a cloud of gas and debris about 15 miles into the air. The eruption was continuous, with numerous explosions. Capt. W.J. Watson of the Irish merchant ship Charles Bal reported that the noise was like the continuous discharge of heavy artillery. The noise intensified and was accompanied by a hail of ash and pumice. Ash eventually blanketed everything within thousands of square miles, plunging the area into darkness that would last two and a half days.

Capt. Watson said that the intense blackness made it impossible to see to any distance. There was also a small tsunami on the shores of Java and Sumatra.

Early in the morning on August 27, a series of explosions began triggering more tsunamis. The third of these explosions was the most horrific, so violent that it was heard about 1,900 miles away in Western Australia – and about 3,000 miles away on the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues. People there thought the blasts were cannon fire from a nearby ship.

The noise from this explosion is arguably the loudest sound ever recorded. The barometer at a gasworks in Batavia (now Jakarta), 100 miles from Krakatoa, registered a spike in pressure of over 2.5 inches of mercury, which converts to over 172 decibels, at 100 miles from the source. (For context, if you were operating a jackhammer you would be subject to 100 decibels.)

At above 194 decibels, sound waves stop traveling through the air and begin pushing the air along with them – and the resulting “wind,” or shock wave, can blow anything in its path to pieces. Closer to Krakatoa the sound was well over this limit.

The shock waves created by the Krakatoa eruption shattered windows and shook homes within a 100-mile radius of the volcano. The shock waves were so powerful that they were recorded by barometric stations around the globe.

The tsunamis created by the eruption proved most deadly. More than 36,000 people were swept out to sea in the series of tsunamis caused by the volcano’s collapse, which created a wall of water over 100 feet high that wiped out scores of coastal villages on Java and Sumatra. The tsunami carried the Dutch ship Berouw a mile inland, killing all 28 crew.

The eruptions also created pyroclastic flows – avalanches of lava, ash, and pumice. These flows scorched everything in their path, whether passing ships or coastal villages. Michael Bubb writes:

Of the 36,000 deaths, around 4,500 were attributed to the pyroclastic flows which would have arrived just after the tsunamis. Most likely the 4,500 who met their fate with the flows had reached higher ground or shelter to avoid the rushing water, only to be engulfed in fire and ash.

Unimaginable horror was unfolding on the Sunda islands.

This catastrophe marked a series of “firsts,” says geologist David Bressan. It was the first global catastrophe and the first news story to go around the world, thanks to modern communications.

As the Sunda Strait was and still is an important passage from the Indian Ocean to the Chinese Sea, news about the eruption and destruction of harbors and lighthouses in the area were of special interest to merchants, politicians, and the public in general…

Krakatoa was also the first scientifically well recorded and studied eruption of a volcano, from the very beginning to its disastrous ending.

The study of what was left of the former island of Krakatoa also spawned a new scientific discipline: disturbance ecology. Observations made at Krakatoa were valuable for understanding the colonization of devastated or newly formed terrain.

And what of the clipper Norham Castle? On Sunday, August 26, the vessel was at the eastern entrance of the Sunda Strait, along with another ship, the Sir Robert Sale. On Monday morning both vessels entered the Strait but because of blackened skies neither made much progress.

Capt. O. Sampson of the Norham Castle reported that Krakatoa “appeared to be alight with flickering flames rising behind a dense black cloud; at the same time balls of fire rested on the mastheads and extremities of the yardarms.”

In the wake of the devastating eruption, Capt. Sampson wrote in his official log:

I am writing this blind in pitch blackness. We are under a continual rain of pumice and dust. So violent are the explosions that the eardrums of over half my crew have been shattered. My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced the Day of Judgement has come.

By the morning of Tuesday, August 28, Krakatoa had gone silent. The volcanic island had almost entirely sunk, except for the southern third. The blackness of the sky was slowly beginning to lift. The Sir Robert Sale and the Norham Castle finally made it through the Strait.

“On The Ground in Haiti,” by Alpha Unit

New Alpha Unit on the Haiti catastrophe. I like Doctors Without Borders. A great organization.

Fractures. Burns. Open wounds. Amputations. These are some of the injuries and surgical necessities being dealt with in Haiti by Doctors Without Borders. They are reporting that they are now treating gunshot wounds. Understandably, violence has been on the increase in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck on January 12.

Not only has Doctors Without Borders set up hospitals in Port-au-Prince, they have paid special attention to western Haiti, location of the quake’s epicenter, where the devastation has resulted in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. People are sleeping in the streets. So far there is very little help for them.

It’s all over the news that Doctors Without Borders, which already had a presence in Haiti, has had difficulty landing some of their cargo planes carrying surgical equipment and surgical teams. Apparently there is great confusion in giving planes the necessary clearance. According to Benoit Leduc, operations manager for Haiti, there isn’t a “smooth liaison” in decision making between the United States military and the United Nations.

Doctors Without Borders has been in the middle of humanitarian crises like this one since its founding in 1971. A group of French doctors created it after the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970. The southeastern region of Nigeria had broken off to form the independent nation of Biafra.

France had been the only major country to support Biafra (France wasn’t exactly neutral in all this; it had its own interests in the conflict.) Some French doctors had volunteered with the Red Cross to work in hospitals in the region. But the volunteers found themselves under attack by the Nigerian army, and also saw abuses against civilians.

A principle dear to the Red Cross was neutrality. It did not allow itself to take sides in any hostilities or inject itself into religious, political, or ideological disputes. These doctors wanted to focus solely on the needs of victims, without being beholden to appearances of “not taking sides.”

The group, in fact, does not take sides. But as they learned long ago, unfortunately, humanitarian groups have been attacked if ruling powers perceived them to be doing so.

Of course, Haiti is a different story. The enemy here seems to be the chaos following the devastation of last week’s earthquake. Life-saving endeavors proceed in spite of it.

"On The Ground in Haiti," by Alpha Unit

New Alpha Unit on the Haiti catastrophe. I like Doctors Without Borders. A great organization.
Fractures. Burns. Open wounds. Amputations. These are some of the injuries and surgical necessities being dealt with in Haiti by Doctors Without Borders. They are reporting that they are now treating gunshot wounds. Understandably, violence has been on the increase in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck on January 12.
Not only has Doctors Without Borders set up hospitals in Port-au-Prince, they have paid special attention to western Haiti, location of the quake’s epicenter, where the devastation has resulted in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. People are sleeping in the streets. So far there is very little help for them.
It’s all over the news that Doctors Without Borders, which already had a presence in Haiti, has had difficulty landing some of their cargo planes carrying surgical equipment and surgical teams. Apparently there is great confusion in giving planes the necessary clearance. According to Benoit Leduc, operations manager for Haiti, there isn’t a “smooth liaison” in decision making between the United States military and the United Nations.
Doctors Without Borders has been in the middle of humanitarian crises like this one since its founding in 1971. A group of French doctors created it after the Nigerian Civil War of 1967 to 1970. The southeastern region of Nigeria had broken off to form the independent nation of Biafra.
France had been the only major country to support Biafra (France wasn’t exactly neutral in all this; it had its own interests in the conflict.) Some French doctors had volunteered with the Red Cross to work in hospitals in the region. But the volunteers found themselves under attack by the Nigerian army, and also saw abuses against civilians.
A principle dear to the Red Cross was neutrality. It did not allow itself to take sides in any hostilities or inject itself into religious, political, or ideological disputes. These doctors wanted to focus solely on the needs of victims, without being beholden to appearances of “not taking sides.”
The group, in fact, does not take sides. But as they learned long ago, unfortunately, humanitarian groups have been attacked if ruling powers perceived them to be doing so.
Of course, Haiti is a different story. The enemy here seems to be the chaos following the devastation of last week’s earthquake. Life-saving endeavors proceed in spite of it.

Tsunami Kills 134 People in Samoa

An incredibly huge 7.9-8.3 magnitude earthquake hit the South Pacific early on Tuesday.
The tsunami caused some waves that were 5 feet above height, and there were deaths from the tsunami in both American Samoa and Western Samoa, over 100 deaths in Western Samoa and 34 deaths in American Samoa. 1 New Zealander, 3 Koreans and 1 Australian were among the victims. 6 Australians and 1 Koreans were still missing. 5% of the Australians living in Samoa were either killed or missing. Another 145 people were injured and whole villages were wiped out.
Fautasi was one village that was completely obliterated. There were at least 5 dead in the village, and the death toll there could go into the 100’s in that village alone. The village of Salesatele was destroyed, and 37 bodies have been found there.
A reporter saw at least 20 bodies in the southeastern town of Lalomanu. The town and surrounding region were flattened. There were 7-8 dead in Malaela, and many are missing. There were also many dead in Vailoa and Aleipata.
The village of Sau Sau Beach Fale was wiped out. There were also an unknown number of deaths in Talamoa. 40 bodies had been brought to the local hospital in Apia. 20 bodies were seen in a hospital in the city of Upolu. 100 bodies were reported from the southern coast alone and the total was rising all the time.
Tsunamis were recorded at Apia and Pago Pago in American Samoa. Tsunami waves 15-20 feet high struck Tutuila Island, where Pago Pago is, and moved up to 1.6 miles inland. The National Park Service office on the island was completely obliterated. 80% of the park workers are volunteers are missing.
Hawaii was spared by the tsunami, but waves 1-2 feet higher than normal hit the California coast a couple of hours ago.