On Monday afternoon, a volcano on Whakaari/White Island in New Zealand erupted, killing at least five people and wounding many others. Despite some warning signs that an eruption may have been coming, tour groups continued to visit the island. West Virginia University volcanologist Graham Andrews explains what likely happened and cautions against tourism development on "unpredictable and dangerous" active volcanic sites.
Andrews, assistant professor of geology at WVU's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, has spoken about eruptions in Hawai'i and Guatemala and earthquakes in California. His research on volcanology and petrology has uncovered a previously unknown ice age in southern Africa.
"The volcano on White Island has a history of unexpected, small but powerful explosive eruptions, most recently in 2001, yet it remains a major tourist destination popular with helicopter and boat tours that allow people to visit its steaming, acidic lake," Andrews said. "Unfortunately, the small size of the island means that nearly all the people on it were probably at or close to the lake and the center of the eruption when it occurred; the only known survivors were close to the shoreline and as far as possible from the explosion. Video of the eruption shows the entire island was rapidly inundated in a thick blanket of grey ash and white steam, indicating that the lake evaporated.
"Earthquake activity and the temperature of the lake had both increased since September, but White Island is notoriously unpredictable and there was no specific warning of an impending eruption, let alone one of this size. All volcanoes in New Zealand are monitored extensively by the government's GeoNet agency, but this unfortunate event demonstrates that all active volcanoes are unpredictable and dangerous, and that volcano-tourist development should proceed cautiously with safety as the highest priority.”