Hell on Earth: 12 of History's Most Destructive Natural Disasters
Hell on Earth: 12 of History’s Most Destructive Natural Disasters

Hell on Earth: 12 of History’s Most Destructive Natural Disasters

Khalid Elhassan - October 10, 2017

Hell on Earth: 12 of History’s Most Destructive Natural Disasters
Aftermath of 1839 Coringa Cyclone. Monsters and Critics

1839 Coringa Cyclone

Until 1839, Coringa was a bustling port city on the Bay of Bengal near the mouth of the Godavari river in India’s east coast, with a population numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and a harbor that hosted thousands of ships annually, busily loading and unloading goods and produce. Today, Coringa is a tiny village near the coast, of no distinction or note, and a population of no more than a few thousand. The drastic decline was caused by a pair of devastating cyclones, one in 1789, and an even more destructive one fifty years later, in 1839.

After centuries of prosperity, Coringa’s fortunes took a hit in 1789, when a storm that came to be called The Great Coringa Cyclone developed in December of that year, fairly late in the cyclone season by Bay of Bengal standards. It produced severe storm-tide conditions, and witnesses described a succession of three giant waves striking Coringa, with the first storm tide driving ashore all the ships in Anchorage, while the second and third waves, even bigger than the first, flowed inland to inundate with saltwater the fertile fields of the Godavari river’s delta. The city of Coringa was almost completely destroyed, and around 20,000 people were killed.

Akin to those who named the 1914 – 1918 global war “The Great War“, little knowing that an even greater one would soon follow, those who named the 1789 storm the “Great Coringa Cyclone” did not suspect that an even bigger and far more devastating cyclone would strike Coringa within a lifetime. Fifty years later, by 1839, Coringa had recovered from the 1789 disaster and rebuilt, and was more prosperous, populous, and bustling than it had ever been.

Then, on November 25, 1839, again unusually late in the Bay of Bengal’s cyclone season, a monstrous cyclone struck Coringa and brought with it a 40-foot storm surge. The extensive damage of the earlier 1789 cyclone paled in comparison to this one, which wholly destroyed the city of Coringa, wrecked all ships in the harbor and carried their wreckage miles inland, and killed over 300,000 people.

This time the damage was so extensive that the few survivors made no effort to rebuild. Most upped stakes and scattered to pursue their lives elsewhere, putting distance between themselves and what was thought to be a cursed city. The few who remained, some of whom were old enough to have experienced both devastating cyclones during their lifetimes, abandoned the coast altogether and rebuilt their community miles inland.

Hell on Earth: 12 of History’s Most Destructive Natural Disasters
27th May 1883: Clouds pouring from the volcano on Krakatoa (aka Krakatau or Rakata) in south western Indonesia during the early stages of the eruption which eventually destroyed most of the island. Royal Society Report on Krakatoa Eruption – pub. 1888 Lithograph – Parker & Coward (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

1883 Krakatoa Eruption

One of the best attested major eruptions of modern times occurred on Krakatoa Island, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra in the then Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Krakatoa, which had three linked volcanic peaks, began erupting on the afternoon of August 26, 1883 and peaked the following morning. By the time it stopped, most of Krakatoa Island and its surrounding archipelago had disappeared, collapsing into a caldera. Minor seismic activity continued for months afterward, before the volcano finally fell silent.

While the intensity and suddenness of the eruption were surprising, the eruption itself was not, for there had been plenty of warnings. For years, there had been intense seismic activity on Krakatoa, with earthquakes felt as far away as Australia. Three months before the dramatic explosion, beginning in May, the volcano started to vent steam and spew columns of ash up to 20,000 feet into the air, and give off explosions that were heard in Jakarta, 100 miles away.

That went on for a week, then quieted, before resuming again in mid-June, with a thick black cloud that covered the area for a week as the volcano erupted periodically, emitting ash and throwing up pumice that landed hundreds of miles away into the Indian Ocean.

That activity, in turn, increased tidal activity, with the results that ships had to be moored with strong chains to resist the tide’s suddenly strong ebb and flow. By early August, a desolate and abandoned Krakatoa was covered by nearly two feet of ash, and all vegetation had died, leaving only tree stumps.

The final act started early in the afternoon of August 26. By 2 PM, explosions could be heard every 10 minutes or so, and Krakatoa had spewed a 20-mile high ash cloud that was visible from far off, and ships up to 12 miles away reported a heavy ash fall, accompanied by bits of pumice up to 4 inches wide. By early evening, the seismic activity had given rise to mini tsunamis, which struck the Sumatran and Javan coasts 25 miles away.

The climax began early the following morning, with two big eruptions, at 5:30 and 6:44 AM on August 27th, which gave rise to tsunamis. That was followed at 10:02 AM by the loudest sound ever heard until then in recorded history: a cataclysmic explosion of about 180 decibels, that was equivalent to 15,000 Hiroshima bombs and that put the preceding eruptions to shame. It was heard nearly 2000 miles away in Perth, Australia, 3000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and produced a tsunami about 100 feet high in places.

Yet that was not the worst that Krakatoa had to offer. A fourth, and even more powerful eruption, occurred at 10:41 AM, nearly twice as loud as the previous one, at 310 decibels: so loud that it ruptured eardrums 40 miles away, and was clearly heard from 3100 miles away. A tsunami with a wall of water up to 120 feet high raced out, as ash was flung 50 miles up into the sky by an explosion that produced a pressure wave that was recorded in barometers all over the world.

Recorded on global barometers not once, but seven times, as the pressure wave raced around the planet for five days, circling the globe and coming back to the volcano, and continuing on, again and again, and again, still powerful enough to register on barometers everywhere on earth as circled the planet multiple times. The catastrophic eruptions and resultant tsunamis killed at least 36,000 according to official Dutch estimates, but modern estimates put the true casualty figures at up to 120,000.