Science with Style

The first four paragraphs provide information on current volcano eruption and an even bigger one in 1883. Look carefully at 4th paragraph starting "Where Iceland's" that has three comparison of two events, each introduced by "where" -- a good idea to deliver the topic-stings that drive the piece: stunned amazement, awe and linked-together unforgettable art and vital discovery in atmospheris science (jet stream). But it is not easy. Take a look, noting both the amazing collection of small, apparently unconnected facts and the way they are combined for a larger whole.

A Tale of Two Vocanoes
Published: April 16, 2010, NYTimes, page A23

Sandisfield, Mass.

In planetary terms, it was just a tiny pinprick that opened up last month
underneath the Eyjafjalla Glacier in southern Iceland, when a long-forgotten
volcano started to erupt again after a quiescence of nearly 200 years. But
insignificant though the rent in the planet's fabric may have been, uncounted
millions have been suddenly affected by it.

The North Atlantic winds shifted by just a few degrees, and all of a sudden
commercial catastrophe has been visited on northern Europe: air traffic
peremptorily shut down, the skies cleared of planes wary of flying through the
high-altitude streams of the volcano's brutally corrosive airborne silica dust.

The last time the world was so mightily affected in this way was in 1883, when a
similarly tiny vent in the earth's surface opened up on the island of Krakatoa,
between Java and Sumatra, in what is now Indonesia. Some 40,000 people died
because of that eruption -- it was a much more fierce event, and in a much more
populated place. But the clouds of dust that cascaded upward into the
stratosphere affected the entire planet for the rest of the year on the same
scale -- except that the effects themselves were of a profoundly different kind.

Where Iceland's volcano has set off a wave of high-technology panic, Java's
event set off something benign and really quite lovely: worldwide displays of
light and color that reduced mankind to a state of stunned amazement. Where
Iceland has caused shock, Java resulted in awe. And where Eyjafjalla's ashes
seem to have cost millions in lost business, Krakatoa's dust left the world not
just a remarkable legacy of unforgettable art but also spurred a vital discovery
in atmospheric science.

The skies in the fall of 1883 became weirdly changed. The moon turned blue, or
sometimes green. Firefighters in New York and elsewhere thought they saw distant
fires, caused by clouds of boiling dust. The vivid ash-tinged sunsets, and the
post-sunset horizon rainbows of purple and passion fruit and salmon-red, were
said to be the most memorable.

Painters in particular did their best to capture what they saw. An obscure
Londoner named William Ascroft, astonished by the nightly light show along the
Thames, turned out a watercolor every 10 minutes, night after night, working
like a human camera. More than 500 Krakatoa paintings survive him. "Blood
afterglow," he jotted down on one canvas, noting the magic done by refractive
crystals of dust; "Amber afterglow," on another.

Grander artists, like Frederic Church of the Hudson River School, were spurred
to action too. In December, four months after the Javanese blast, Church hurried
up from Olana, his Moorish castle near Poughkeepsie, to Lake Ontario, and one
perfect evening caught the vivid crepuscular purples over the ice on Chaumont
Bay, knowing full well -- as science already did -- that it was a volcano 10,000
miles away that had painted the sky for him.

And one even more famous painting speaks of Krakatoa as well: recent research
suggests that Edvard Munch a decade later painted "The Scream" while remembering
a night in Oslo that had been much affected by the volcanic dust. Indeed, the
climatic records show that the swirling orange skies behind the terror-stricken
face match perfectly those recorded that winter in southern Norway.

It was more than art that resulted from Krakatoa's outpourings of trillions of
tons of fine siliceous ash. It left a lasting effect on science as well.

The heavier dust from Krakatoa slowly fell to earth, coating ships and cities
thousands of miles away. But the micron-sized particles from the volcano's mouth
did not fall back at all. Instead, they were carried ever upward, and ended up
floating around the world for years, on streams of globe-girdling winds that
were not then even known to exist.

Weather-watchers, carefully noting just when certain skies in certain cities
were inflamed and colored by the passing high-altitude dust clouds, produced a
map showing just how these wind currents moved around the world. The first name
they used for the phenomenon was the "equatorial smoke stream." Today it is, of
course, the jet stream -- a discovery that remains perhaps the most important
legacy of Krakatoa.

It is a legacy that, like the night-sky art, remains somewhat more memorable
than the flight-cancellation lists at London's airports, which will probably be
the most lasting public memorial of the little-volcano-that-roared on the
southern flank of Iceland.

Simon Winchester is the author of "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded" and the forthcoming "Atlantic: The Biography of an Ocean."

Don't cite this page:
It is the work of Simon Winchester and appeared on op-ed page of NYTimes 16 April 2010
[Sunday, 21-Oct-2018 18:41:14 EDT]
Edited by: on Friday, 16-Apr-2010 09:09:01 EDT