New Zealand volcano eruption: What you need to know about White Island

New Zealand volcano eruption: What you need to know about White Island

White Island volcano eruption New Zealand
This handout photo taken on Jul 23, 2019 shows the volcano on New Zealand's White Island spewing steam and ash. (Photo: AFP/Chris Firkin)

SINGAPORE: White Island, one of New Zealand's most active volcanoes and a tourist attraction, suddenly erupted on Monday (Dec 9), spewing a plume of ash 12,000 feet (3,658m) into the sky. 

The eruption, although labelled “short-lived”, “not particularly big” and “almost like a throat clearing kind of eruption” by New Zealand’s geoscience agency GNS Science, has killed at least five and injured several others.

Amid rescue efforts, here is a look at the volcanic island located 50km from the east coast of North Island. 

White Island volcano eruption infographic

LARGEST VOLCANIC STRUCTURE IN NEW ZEALAND

White Island, or Whakaari as it is known in Maori, is one of New Zealand's most active volcanoes, having seen continuous activity over the past 150,000 years. 

It is also New Zealand's largest volcanic structure, with about 70 per cent under the sea, according to geological hazard tracking agency GeoNet.

White Island's last eruption, also described as "short-lived" on the GeoNet website, was in April 2016. An "explosive eruption" previously occurred on Aug 5, 2012 and again on Aug 20, 2012 as well as several days in October 2013. 

Although the eruption on Monday was unexpected, it was not unusual, said an expert.

"Sudden, unheralded eruptions from volcanoes such as White Island can be expected at any time," Shane Cronin, a volcanologist at the University of Auckland, said in comments published by the Australia Science Media Centre.

"We know hydrothermal and so-called 'phreatic' eruptions can occur suddenly and with little or no warning because they are driven by the expansion of super-heated water into steam," he added.

NEW ZEALAND SITS IN THE PACIFIC RING OF FIRE 

New Zealand is situated at the edge of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped area along the rim of the Pacific Ocean where tectonic plates meet and that sees frequent seismic and volcanic activity. 

Other volcanic hotspots located on the Ring of Fire include Indonesia, Japan and California. 

In total, more than 450 volcanoes - which make up 75 per cent of Earth's volcanoes - are located along the Ring of Fire, according to the National Geographic.

READ: UN warns Pacific Ring of Fire is "active" as volcanoes erupt across Asia

READ: Meet the volcano chaser documenting Indonesia’s volatile craters

A TOURIST DESTINATION

Frequent explosive eruptions is an obvious threat to visitors, but White Island remains a tourist destination.

Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano each year, according to GeoNet. 

White Island Tours, which organises guided trips, describes the island as “one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes” on its website. 

Prices range from NZ$229 (US$150) to NZ$399 for a one-hour tour that allows visitors to "experience roaring steaming vents, bubbling pits of mud and hot volcanic streams". 

Before the incident, the website stated that White Island was at volcanic alert level 2, which "indicates moderate to heightened volcanic unrest, (with) potential for eruption hazards to occur". 

"White Island Tours operates through the varying alert levels but passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level. 

"White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan that determines our activities on the island at the various levels," the website read, before it was updated after the incident to say: "We are currently experiencing an emergency."

A FORMER MINING VILLAGE

A sulphur mining venture began on the island in the 1880s but this was abruptly stopped in 1914 when part of the crater wall collapsed, triggering a landslide that destroyed the mine and miners' village. 

Several people were killed, according to GeoNet. 

The remains of a factory can still be seen on the island. 

Source: CNA/nr(hs)

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