The Glen Canyon Conservancy and Page Public Library presented “Krakatoa, John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River” by Paul Ostapuk on January 17 at the Page Public Library. Many attended, curious to find out what does a volcano that erupted in the south Pacific Ocean, 140 years ago, have to do with the John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River? By the end of the presentation, the connections presented by Ostapuk were coincidental and uncanny.
According to wikipedia.com: “The 1883 (Krakatoa) eruption ejected approximately 25 cubic km (six cubic miles) of rock. The cataclysmic explosion was heard 3,600 km (2,200 mi) away in Alice Springs, Australia, and on the island of Rodrigues near Mauritius, 4,780 km (2,970 mi) to the west.
According to brittanica.com: “The discharge of Krakatoa threw (into the atmosphere) … rock fragments, and large quantities of ash fell over an area of some 300,000 square miles (800,000 square km). 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.” 35,000 people worldwide died due to incidents related to Krakatoa.
The eruption started on November 28, 1883. 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 creating red sunsets. Weather patterns remained unsettled for that time and there was abnormally high rainfall in America. 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 of that city’s 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 (now a unit of the NPS system) to fail, drowning thousands.
Flooding in southern Arizona from 1888 to 1890 caused the San Pedro and Santa Cruz rivers to carve deep channels and flooding. The heavy rains caused a bumper crop of saguaros to germinate and take root. Many of today’s oldest saguaros, with their many arms standing tall start in the Sonoran in these floods.
In 1889, John Wesley Powell, then director of the US 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 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.” He further states “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” and “one of the great agricultural regions of this country will be found in the irrigated plains and valleys of the West.” Dam construction, Powell says, “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,” and would be supplemented by “gauging of streams to determine their average volume and maximum volumes.”
In the Colorado River, before Hoover Dam, there were annual floods. On July 8, 1884 floodwaters measured at the mouth of the Paria River resulted in an estimated 300,000 cubic feet per second. Between 1878 and 1929 peak flows for the Colorado River were estimated to exceed 100,000 cfs 23 times and three times 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.
Ostapuk showed how the pattern of a volcano erupting 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 their cars from the layer of ash that fell overnight. Two years later, 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 the St. Helens eruption. Ostapuk believes that the two eruption 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 acrefeet from the increased snowfall and runoff that year and continued from 1995-1999.
In 2022, the largest recorded volcanic eruption since Krakatoa occurred in the kingdom of Tonga in the south Pacific, some 3700 miles east of Australia. The explosion and eruption, heard in Alaska, increased the amount of moisture in the stratosphere by 13 percent and created colorful sunsets around the world. While the eruption occurred in the southern hemisphere, fine particles spread throughout both hemispheres. Since the Tonga eruption, there was catastrophic flooding and damage in Yellowstone. Northern California saw “historic deluge as atmospheric river slams the state” (Washington Post January 1, 2023). Buffalo, New York saw snow storms that are “deadliest in more than four decades” (NPR, January 2, 2023.) Denver, Colorado saw a record temperature drop of 37 degrees F in less than an hour on December 22, 2022.
While Ostapuk said he’s not claiming a scientific link between volcanic eruptions followed by exceptionally wet weather in the Southwest, he did say that this is an interesting pattern.
Paul said on December 3, 2022, that he is “in the camp 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 predicts 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.
The Glen Canyon Conservancy Lecture Series is 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.