On 27 August 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.
It was 10:02 AM local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius* (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”1) In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.
Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. 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. Travelling at the speed of sound (766 miles or 1,233 kilometers per hour), it takes a noise about 4 hours to cover that distance. This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.
So what could possibly create such an earth-shatteringly loud bang? A volcano on Krakatoa had just erupted with a force so great that it tore the island apart, emitting a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere, according to a geologist who witnessed it1. You could use this observation to calculate that stuff spewed out of the volcano at over 1,600 miles per hour—or nearly half a mile per second. That’s more than twice the speed of sound.
This explosion created a deadly tsunami with waves over a hundred feet (30 meters) in height. One hundred sixty-five coastal villages and settlements were swept away and entirely destroyed. In all, the Dutch (the colonial rulers of Indonesia at the time) estimated the death toll at 36,417, while other estimates exceed 120,0002,3.
The British ship Norham Castle was 40 miles from Krakatoa at the time of the explosion. The ship’s captain wrote in his log, “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.”2