A few days ago, a volcanic island in New Zealand blew its top and is thought to have killed everyone who wasn’t evacuated in time. The tragedy is raising questions about why we didn’t see it coming?
On December 8, 2019, at 2:22 PM local time, White Island in New Zealand exploded, sending a plume of toxic gases sky-high, thousands of feet in the air.
A total of 47 people were on the 31-mile-wide island that lies off the coast of Whakatane on neighboring North Island. Eight people have been confirmed dead and eight more are missing and presumed dead.
Specialist burn units throughout hospitals in New Zealand are treating 21 survivors and seven were flown to Australia to receive medical care. More injured victims are expected to follow.
Satellite images captured the eruption from space, showing as a puff of grayish-white vapor that quickly dissipates.
New Zealand police first reported they believed there were no survivors. Five people had already been confirmed dead. Twenty-three others were rescued, leaving unaccounted about 50 natives and visiting tourists.
Police officials released a statement regarding their response to the emergency:
“The Police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter, and NZDF aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption. No signs of life have been seen at any point.
“Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation. Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island. [We are] working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already.”
St. John Ambulance flew paramedics on helicopters and The New Zealand Defence Force was dispatched to the disaster area to help provide emergency services.
No one lives on White Island but it is a regular tourist stop for day tours. A shore excursion group from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship was on the island at the time it erupted. Some tour operators had recalled their guests from White Island before it was declared unsafe.
Officials believe that many of the people yet to be accounted for came from the cruise liner and are checking its passenger list to see if anyone is missing.
The volcano on White Island is New Zealand’s most active. About 70 percent of the volcanic structure is submerged from view above water. The December 8 eruption claimed the most deaths since 1914.
Michael Schade was one of the lucky survivors. He tweeted videos of the cloud-shrouded island and a line of people on the rocky shore waiting to be evacuated from danger and shared his feelings about this sudden brush with death:
“My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for [the] first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable.”
Schade was obviously and understandably in shock by his harrowing experience:
“This is so hard to believe. Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before. My thoughts with the families of those currently unaccounted for, the people recovering now, and especially the rescue workers.”
North Island, located about 30 miles west of White Island (Whakaari in Maori), is not expected to suffer much fallout from the recent eruption. However, police have requested that people avoid areas on North Island that are close to the eruption, including the Whakatane Heads and Muriwai Drive areas.
The GeoNet agency is a partnership between the Earthquake Commission (EQC), GNS Science, and Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) established in 2001 to build and operate a modern geological hazard monitoring system in New Zealand. According to the seismic detection organization’s website:
“It [GeoNet] comprises a network of geophysical instruments, automated software applications, and skilled staff to detect, analyze, and respond to earthquakes, volcanic activity, large landslides, tsunami and the slow deformation that precedes large earthquakes.”
GeoNet classified the event as a moderate volcanic eruption that vaulted smoke and debris about 12,000 feet into the air. The eruption earned a four on the alert level scale where five is a major eruption.
Earth scientists cautioned that there is no certainty that another eruption won’t occur in the near future. Dr. KIen Gledhill said that the area had shown increased seismic activity over the previous few weeks which triggered the elevated alert level.
Experts can’t explain, though, why tourists were allowed to continue disembarking thereafter the 4/5 alert level was raised.
Also difficult to understand is why GeoNet didn’t forecast the cataclysmic event. The fact is that the extraordinarily expensive, state-of-the-art advanced measuring technology that records every quiver, tremor, and shake in the Earth’s bedrock for historical review and reverse-explaining (as in, “We think it happened because these other things happened first.”) is incapable of predicting the future.
Typically, signs that background rumblings will turn into a furious, full-throttle volcanic eruption happen minutes or perhaps only seconds beforehand.
On December 11, GeoNet gave “medium” odds of 50-60 percent that White Island could see more volcanic activity in the following 24 hours.
This will add a distinct element of risk to the eight members of the New Zealand Defense Force who will attempt to access the island on December 12 from the naval ship HMS NZ Wellington to assess the situation and coordinate removing the remains of the deceased.