Lecture links John Wesley Powell and 19th century volcanic eruption

A lithograph of the eruption of Krakatoa by Parker & Coward. The image was originally published as Plate 1 in “The Eruption of Krakatoa, and Subsequent Phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society” (London, Trubner & Co., 1888).

Local historian Paul Ostapuk presented a lecture on “Krakatoa, John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River” at Page Public Library on Jan. 17. The intriguing title had many people wondering what a volcano that erupted in the south Pacific Ocean 140 years ago had to do with John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River.

Ostapuk answered those questions by presenting connections that were both coincidental and uncanny.

The eruption of Krakatoa started on November 28, 1883. According to brittanica.com, the volcano’s discharge threw rock fragments into the atmosphere, while ash fell over an area of about 300,000 square miles (800,000 square kilometers). 

“Near the volcano, masses of floating pumice were so thick as to halt ships. The surrounding region was plunged into darkness for two and a half days because of ash in the air. The fine dust drifted several times around the Earth, causing spectacular red and orange sunsets throughout the following year,” according to brittanica.com.  

Worldwide, 35,000 people died due to incidents related to Krakatoa.

The veil of dust that remained suspended in the atmosphere caused the world’s climate to cool as much as 2 degrees for several years. Weather patterns remained unsettled during that time, and the deserts of North America enjoyed two to three years of exceptional rainfall. Los Angeles received 38.18 inches of rainfall in the months following the eruption, and 1884 remains the year that the city received its all-time record annual rainfall.  

In March 1888, a blizzard covered the eastern seaboard from the Chesapeake to Maine, killing 400 and paralyzing the East Coast. The blizzard, known as the Great White Hurricane, even took the life of a U.S. senator. In 1889, exceptionally heavy rains caused a dam at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to fail, drowning thousands.

Flooding in southern Arizona from 1888 to 1890 caused the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers to carve deep channels. The heavy rains caused a bumper crop of saguaros to germinate and take root. Many of today’s oldest saguaros, with their multiple arms standing tall, start in the Sonoran during these floods.

In 1889, John Wesley Powell, then director of the U.S. Geologic Survey, wrote of the collapse of the Jonestown flood: “The dam has not been properly related to the natural condition” and was not designed to handle the amount of water that it collected. 

Some say Powell would have been upset for a lake to be named for him, but Ostapuk shared several quotes from Powell’s publication “The Lesson of Conemaugh,” which he wrote after the Jonestown Dam’s collapse. 

“All of the early civilizations of the world began in arid lands, and the best agriculture of the world today is carried on by means of artificial irrigation,” Powell wrote. “If this is done … all on highland streams will immediately become of value. … Dams and reservoirs must be constructed in far greater numbers than in the past. … One of the great agricultural regions of this country will be found in the irrigated plains and valleys of the West.” 

Powell said that when it comes to dam construction, “the first thing to be done is to determine the amount of water to be controlled and the rate at which it will be delivered to the reservoir under maximum conditions of rainfall or snow-melting.” This would be supplemented by “gauging of streams to determine their average volume and maximum volumes.”

Before Hoover Dam was completed in 1936, there were annual floods on the Colorado River. On July 8, 1884, floodwaters measured at the mouth of the Paria River in northern Arizona resulted in an estimated flow of 300,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Between 1878 and 1929, peak flows for the Colorado River were estimated to exceed 100,000 cfs 23 times, and three times they exceeded 200,000 cfs.  

Powell certified 150 dam sites and believed that no water from the mountains should be allowed to wash into the sea.

During his lecture, Ostapuk pointed out a pattern in which volcanic eruptions are followed a few years later by record rainfall or drought.

For example, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted and filled the sky with ash. Automobile dealerships in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had to wash the ash from the eruption from their cars. In 1982, the El Chichon volcano in Mexico erupted and was the first major eruption to be studied with modern instruments. The eruption was similar in magnitude to Mount St. Helens. The two eruptions affected the climate by increasing the temperature of the stratosphere. In 1983 and 1984, the maximum inflow for Lake Powell was between 116,000 and 125,600 cfs, and Lake Powell rose to 3,707 feet.  

Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted between June 14 and 26, 1991. In 1993, Lake Powell increased storage by 6.6 million acre-feet from the increased snowfall and runoff that year, and the increase continued from 1995-1999.  

In 2022, the largest recorded volcanic eruption since Krakatoa occurred in the kingdom of Tonga in the south Pacific, about 3,700 miles east of Australia. The explosion and eruption, heard in Alaska, increased the amount of moisture in the stratosphere by 13% and created colorful sunsets around the world. While the eruption occurred in the southern hemisphere, fine particles spread throughout both hemispheres.

After the Tonga eruption, there was catastrophic flooding and damage in Yellowstone National Park. Northern California saw a “historic deluge as atmospheric river slams the state,” according to the headline of article in the Washington Post Jan. 1, 2023. On Jan. 2, NPR reported that Buffalo, New York, its “deadliest” snowstorms “in more than four decades.” Meanwhile, Denver, Colorado, saw a record temperature drop of 37 degrees Fahrenheit in less than an hour on December 22, 2022.

While Ostapuk said he was not claiming a scientific link between volcanic eruptions and exceptionally wet weather in the Southwest, he did say it was an interesting pattern.  

Ostapuk said he was in the camp of people who believe that “the Colorado River can come roaring back over time, and people will be shocked by the magnitude of the runoff and what this fickle river is capable of. All it takes are well-aimed atmospheric river events across a series of wet years.”

The Bureau of Reclamation will likely make changes to the 2007 Interim Operating Guidelines. The Lower Basin is using less Colorado River water and using more groundwater.

Ostapuk predicted that future changes in the Pacific Ocean will eventually move the West into a new wet cycle. Droughts will still come and go and are a time to improve infrastructure before the next atmospheric river hits the area.

Ostapuk’s presentation was part of the Glen Canyon Conservancy Lecture Series, a partnership between the conservancy and Page Public Library. For more information about future lectures, contact the Glen Canyon conservancy at canyonconservancy.org or the Page Public Library at pagepubliclibrary.org.   

Video News