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Whakaari – White Island Eruption

From the current Survival issue of Adventure

In the immediate aftermath of the White Island eruption on December 9th 2019, I was overwhelmed, as was everyone I am sure, by the level of support and compassion shown for those affected by the tragedy that unfolded. Heroic actions by the tour guides and other tourists visiting the island along with the local helicopter pilots were shared around the world and once again our country became united by another tragedy.

It didn’t seem to take long before the naysayers were out in full force, criticising every aspect of the devastating event; the way the cruise ship responded, the way the police and rescue crews responded, and then questioning why tourists were even allowed on the Island in the first place.

I know that if I had been on the cruise ship then I would have been one of those people who signed up to go to White Island and walk on the active volcano. I’ve always been drawn to the thing that pushes you outside of your comfort zone, however, I think in the back of my mind that although I have been aware of the inherent risks in outdoor adventures I’ve always believed (obviously wrongly) that as long as I didn’t make a mistake, that all would be OK.

What we seem to forget, and what the White Island tragedy reminds us of, is the fragile and volatile nature of nature itself. Regardless of the numerous warning systems in place and regular monitoring of volcanic activity, White Island erupted without warning.

White Island is not our only active volcano and not our only active volcano where tourists visit regularly. Each winter, Mt Ruapehu hosts close to 10,000 people each day of each weekend as people flock to the mountain to ski and board and simply sight see. Mt Ruapehu is New Zealand’s largest active volcano and began erupting at least 250,000 years ago. In recent history it has had major eruptions every 50 years; 1895, 1945, 1995-1996, with smaller eruptions more frequently, at least 60 have been recorded since 1945 and even these have been large enough to cause damage to the ski fields.

Although no lives were lost in the initial 1945 eruption, it did cause the damming of the Crater Lake, which collapsed in 1953 causing a lahar which in turn caused the Tangiwai disaster which claimed 151 lives. 

In 1995 a series of eruptions took place on Mt Ruapehu resulting in a dramatic eruption in September of that year, with the eruption plume rising 12km high, rocks thrown as far away as 1.5km from the crater and three lahars racing down river valleys. Eruptions continued throughout the remainder of the year and through to June 1996, however the mountain still opened for the ski season that year. Fortunately and unbelievably, no lives were lost in the 1995 eruption, and as a result of the activity that year new regulations were put in place to more closely monitor the volcanic activity levels.

Eruptions have continued on Mt Ruapehu with young climber, William Pike, losing his leg through rockfall from an eruption in September 2007.

In 2012 volcanologists warned of building pressure beneath the crater lake with an eruption likely to occur in the following months. There have been numerous warnings since then but the mountain still remains open for business.

So the question remains, what is considered a reasonable risk?

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