A Blast Heard Around the World,
Skies of Blood & New York’s Fate

What an Expressionist masterpiece painted by a Norwegian, the world’s loudest recorded explosion, and New York City’s possible doom may have in common? Not much really, but to think about the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano 130 years ago is a good start.
For while Edvard Munch’s The Scream is the most dramatic depiction of the surreal red sulphur-dioxide skies that covered Europe and circled the world for months after the explosions of Aug. 26, 1883, many wonder what if it’d happen again today.
That’s when that scenario of destruction comes to play, in a way that would shame all those nightmarish visions Hollywood has been concocting for years about NYC, with room to add terrifying touches of real life tragedies, such as the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Asia.
Before going any further, a bit of a disclaimer of sorts, for we’re fully aware of the tendency of New Yorkers to think themselves as the center of the world, and imagine that there’s always a conspiracy apace against this fair city. But guess what, sometimes they’re right.
Also, we’re far from giving shelter to tabloid doomsday scenarios, for the sake of advancing our unique and highly personal view that, yes, we’re all going to die, and despite our laborious efforts, constructing a pseudo-safe reality to prepare us for the inevitable won’t help us.
We may also need to add that we do resent the fact that New York is always the stand in, and scapegoat, for evil, when it comes to the undying desire of movie execs to make another buck on our account. Like, just blow up the statue (and the box office proceeds), and we’ll be fine. You know who you are.
With that out of the way, let’s now revisit that terrible day in Java and Sumatra, brewed for months prior, then jump to a decade later, when a gifted artist’s visions exploded out of his head and onto the canvas, and then onward to a possible nitty gritty future.

The explosion heard around the world started with a murmur sometime in May of 1883, from the volcano that had been dormant for two centuries. In three months, it built up into a crescendo of small tremblores, dust spewing, earth rattling, and finally to rocks shot 50 miles high into the stratosphere. Blasts were heard 3,000 miles away.
At its peak, the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano is estimated to have reached the energy of 10,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. It ignited earthquakes and tsunamis that possibly killed 100 thousand people and shrunk the land surrounding the mountain to a fraction.
It covered the sun for several days and affected global climate conditions for years. A two-degree dip in the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere is thought to have been a direct consequence of the thick cloud of ash, rock and dust that the eruption spewed up to the atmosphere. Even snow has been recorded in some regions during the following summer.
If the explosions were heard so far away from Sumatra, the scarlet sunsets were equally intense all over the world. Fire engines were called in Poughkeepsie, New York, a few weeks after the eruption, by people sure that an inferno was crackling just beyond (more)
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their land. That view of a red sky was apparently seared in the retina of at least one other person.

It’s no small measure of Munch‘s originality and creative independence that even as he reached his artistic maturity during one of the greatest art movements, the Impressionism of the late 1800s, he engraved his legacy with a radical departure from it, with a master work that anticipated and defined the Expressionism of the early 20th century.
He worked on the series of what was to become The Scream of Nature for almost 20 years, from 1893 on, going back often to the source of his inspiration, now arguably assumed to have been the Krakatoa eruption. The four versions for canvas and several lithographs depict the famous image of a person, mouth agape, surrounded by rivers of intense brushstrokes.
Other artists painted the strangely beautiful phenomenon, with various degrees of success. But it was Munch who succeed at conveying it beyond its mere visual impact, to lend it a visceral urgency and the agony that was probably experienced mostly by those thousands of native Sumatrans who perished in rivers of fire and destruction.
That depiction has become part of the iconography of our times, gracing T-shirts and Halloween masks, as pop a symbol as the Mona Lisa and the anonymous renditions of Che Guevara. It’s also one of the most coveted paintings by thieves, but so far all attempts at subtracting any of its versions from the public view for good have been, fortunately, unsuccessful.

The eruption of the Krakatoa may have been the loudest but it wasn’t the biggest not even of the 19th century. That honor is reserved to Mount Tambora, in 1815. Also, it generated giant tsunamis but the probably of them reaching the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., albeit real, is relatively remote, comparing to other possibilities.
There was a number of comparative studies, gauging just such a possibility, but not directly from Krakatoa. While waves reaching 120 feet above sea level, as those recorded in that August 130 years ago, would theoretically have the power to travel as far as Manhattan, lots of land in the way would neutralize their power.
But a comparably strong eruption could be in the works for another location with an Atlantic Ocean address, just as New York: Cumbre Vieja, a four-mile high volcano in the Canary Islands, west of Morocco, Africa, which has been active for 15 thousand years, and whose western side is now officially considered unstable.
Traces of the tsunami that it generated the last time it blew apart were found as far as the Bahamas and Bermuda. A future eruption could collapse some 500 cubic kilometers of rocks into the Atlantic, which could ignite a wall of water as high as one kilometer, if computer models are to be trusted. Just like a tourist from hell, that could visit the Big Apple in a matter of a few hours.
Obviously, it’d also be the last time anyone would ever see the fabled island, along with parts of other mythical places, such as the Caribbean, northeast Brazil, and even London, and the west of Europe. So, never mind skies of blood; all one would be able to see from the top of the Empire State, before it’d topple, would be mud.

But even when we use expressions like ‘computer models,’ ‘statistically speaking,’ and ‘experts have found,’ mainly to add some gravitas and weight to what is, at the most speculation, what happened in Krakatoa, Munch’s stroke of genius, and what may finally do New York in have one thing in common: they’re tread on the vagaries of fate.
For at the end of the day, it’s not a tsunami, or an earthquake, volcanic eruptions, crashing comets, even a nuclear chain reaction what should rob us of a restful night of sleep, however disconcerting and worth knowing about them they all may be.
What’s really doing us all in is, unfortunately, already happening.
Jadedly, we may think that the millions of human beings who are starving as we speak about doomsday, or those caught in the line of fire, or the thousands who’ll certainly perish for one reason or another in the next five minutes don’t mean much in the big scheme of things. And, granted, expecting a ball of fire to fall over our heads is way sexier.
But there’s no denying, it’s already happening. (As the drums of war once again rise their intensity, one would be at loss to explain why we’re getting ready once again to engage in yet another military adventure. But in all likelihood, it will happen again. And again. Who could possibly think that it’ll solve anything? No one, and yet, we’re indeed preparing under just such a fallacy).
So who can be that scared about another possible hecatombe, since the many that are all around us have so far failed to drive us to the other direction? Munch may have thought about it, when he finally sat down to reveal what was on his mind after 10 years. And as it goes, he seemed fully aware of what it was all about, as he wrote, ‘I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’

(*) Originally published on Aug. 28, 2013.

2 thoughts on “Scream

  1. Terrible times indeed. But, on a lighter note, and with some relevance to the article, back in the days when The Independent was one of the best broadsheets in the UK, I did an article for the travel section on Munch. Starting at the point where Munch received his inspiration for the Scream I walked through areas of Oslo associated with painter. Your readers and you might like to take a peek.

    Liked by 1 person

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