On December 9, 2019, the White Island Volcano in New Zealand suddenly erupted, killing at least 16 people on a tour of the crater. According to GeoNet, a New Zealand organization that monitors and alerts the public about earthquakes, White Island is the country’s “most active cone volcano which has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years.” Unlike Hawaii’s shield volcanoes, cone volcanoes and stratovolcanoes can be extremely dangerous due to the geologic hazards they pose. Possibilities of lahars, (fast-moving mudflows) scorching volcanic gasses, and earthquakes make volcanoes incredibly life-threatening natural disasters.
Additionally, White Island (and New Zealand) is part of the “Ring of Fire,” which is a horseshoe-shaped outline of active volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean caused by oceanic tectonic plates subducting under continental tectonic plates.
The Ring of Fire creates a situation where earthquakes occur along the diagonal subduction line, which runs under the volcanic arc. As a result, all the tectonic unrest can lead magma to abruptly move into the volcanic chamber and cause eruptions with little warning.
Unfortunately, this was the case with White Island. Prior to the eruption on November 18, GeoNet labeled White Island as a Level 2 alert on a zero to five-level scale. A Level 2 alert is characterized by “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest” but does not necessarily mean an eruption is imminent. However, it is also entirely possible that an eruption could occur if the alert level is anything above a zero.
Before the eruption, tours of White Island were popular, drawing 10,000 people to the active volcano in recent years. On the morning of the eruption, a tour company called White Island Tours took a group of 38 people to the island, which was still under a Level 2 alert. Because White Island Tours can set their own policies on whether to travel to the volcano if it shows signs of activity, the company was not out of line for continuing tours that day. However, New Zealand’s government risk regulator, WorkSafe, has begun an investigation into whether there were any safety violations.
Despite the newness of the tragedy, some have begun wondering whether the New Zealand government should have even allowed tours of an active volcano in the first place. Monash University professor and volcanologist Raymond Cas was quoted after the disaster, saying, “White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years” and “I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.” However, some have taken the opposite view in hoping that tours will one day resume, including Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner, who said, “It is adventure tourism, there is risk. Anyone who doesn’t understand that it’s a risk must really be away with the fairies. You’re going into the caldera of an active volcano.”
The last fatal event on White Island was in 1914. Part of the crater wall collapsed on a sulfur mining village, killing ten people. Of course, that was before the earthquake monitoring became mainstream, but the December 9th eruption has shown a severe lack of regulation and oversight. There is no doubt that tours of White Island always carried a risk due to the volatile nature of the volcano – even advertisements for tours marketed the experience as a risky and scary adventure. It may seem obvious now, but just because nothing fatal had happened on the island in over one hundred years doesn’t mean that nothing would happen in the next one hundred years. For a country that regularly experiences dangerous earthquakes, it seems strange that trips to an extremely active and unpredictable volcano were allowed. Hindsight may be 20/20, but the risk of harm to human life is nothing to minimize. Drinking and driving has been illegal for decades solely because it is too much of a risk to human life. Shouldn’t the documented danger of touring an active volcano follow suit?
For now, the island tours have been stopped, but in the future, there will be a decision on whether they can continue. The only question left is where the line will be drawn between “adventure tourism” and the safety of people.
<https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/white-island-new-zealand/> – Cover Image
<https://www.geonet.org.nz/about> – About GeoNet
<https://www.geonet.org.nz/about/volcano/whiteisland> – About White Island
<https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/new-zealand-team-recovers-6-bodies-island-after-volcanic-eruption-n1101316> – Last image source