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Comparing Volcanic Eruptions

Disruptive as it’s been to international aviation, the Icelandic volcano is just a piker.  The ash has been up at around 30,000 to 40,000 feet- right where commercial jets fly.   The ash would have to reach much higher into the atmosphere to actually have an effect on the earth’s climate and much lower to the ground to impact people’s health.

The greatest volcanic eruption of modern times occurred on August 27th, 1883 on the Pacific island of Krakatoa.   It was a monster.  After years of ocean quakes near the island and with tremblers and minor volcanic activity just a few weeks before, the mountain on Krakatoa finally erupted on that August day with four powerful blasts, the last one, a colossal explosion that emitted possibly the loudest sound that’s been heard on the planet Earth over the last 127 years.

Krakatoa Image- Discovery

For sailors unfortunate enough to have been on ships within a few miles of Krakatoa, many suffered broken ear drums.  The sound of the mighty explosion was heard on the British Island of Diego Garcia in an entirely other ocean (Indian), 2000 miles away. 

It also unleashed tsunamis, gigantic 120-foot waves that killed an estimated 36,000 people on nearby islands.

And there was lots of gruesome floating debris.  Pumice, chunks of solid lava, came down from the sky and landed in the ocean and on the decks of ships.  Some of the pumice, light enough to float atop the water, eventually made its way to east Africa, embedded with the skeletons of animals and humans.

The sheer amount of ash dispersed into the atmosphere created cooler summers for years.  It’s estimated there was a loss of 20-30% of direct solar radiation. 

The Krakotoa blast also created memorable sky conditions.  Accounts in Atlantic Monthly magazine from 1884 reported sea captains seeing green sunrises.  Sunsets around the world turned a vivid red for as much as three years after the Krakatoa eruption. 

Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines created similar climactic and visual effects in 1991.  Residents of the Philippines along with U.S. military personnel at American bases there were doubly ill-fated, for shortly after the Pinatubo eruption, a hurricane hit turning the falling ash into wind-swept balls of a mud-like substance that rained from the skies.

So the Iceland volcano has certainly made history for its impact on air travel for so many days.   But it comes nowhere close to Pinatubo and is not even in the same universe as Krakatoa.

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