The Whakaari volcano, located on White Island, New Zealand, erupted on December 9. Unfortunately, 47 people were on the island, 17 of whom were killed and 20 more sustained severe burns. New Zealand’s workplace safety agency, Worksafe, has opened a health and safety investigation to determine whether or not tourists should have been allowed on the island. A coroner has also opened an inquiry. Criminal penalties of up to 5 years in jail are possible, although it’s unclear where the blame will fall.
Three weeks before this tragedy, the alert level of the site had been raised from 1 to 2. This rating is on a scale of 5, where 5 represents a major eruption. GeoNet, the New Zealand agency that monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in the region, had noted an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep within volcanoes. The volcanic tremors had also increased in strength prior to the eruption.
The eruption itself was a short-lived event that sent an ash plume 12,000 feet above the volcano. In addition to the ash plume, hot rocks were likely sent flying out of the crater, showering the surrounding area.
The eruption was not a special event and was even categorized as being within the volcano’s typical range of activity. According to volcanologist Janine Krippner, “people were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
This event has raised questions regarding the safety of volcano tourism.
By Elliott Weix