Mount Vesuvius, Krakatoa, Mount Pinatubo, Tarawera, Ruapehū … some of the world's deadliest volcanic disasters have been joined by Monday's tragedy on Whakaari/White Island in the Bay of Plenty. The eruption has secured a place in history becoming the latest in a string of geothermal disasters in New Zealand that have killed and hurt hundreds. Dawn Picken dissects expert findings and talks to volcano-watchers and historians about the explosive events that have shaped the Central North Island.
Living in the Taupō Volcanic Zone
Understanding geothermal activity and dangers in this region involves digesting history and science and sometimes visiting hot spots.
The zone extends about 350km from Mount Ruapehū and Mount Ngauruhoe, through Taupō, Rotorua and to Whakaari/White Island.
Experts say New Zealand has been and will continue to be transformed - geologically, historically and economically - by volcanoes. Eruptions have formed mountains and lakes. Eruptions have killed and hurt people. Eruptions have cost and made fortunes.
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Dave Wallace, director of the Volcanic Activity Centre in Turangi, says about 10,000 people visit each year, most of them on their way to or from Tongariro National Park. He says the centre was created after the 1995/96 Ruapehū eruptions, which sparked tremendous public interest.
"Visitors to New Zealand see all this volcanic activity which they don't see as easily in other parts of the world. It's very accessible in New Zealand - that's what they're here for, to see the volcanoes, to see the geothermal activity. It's a real treasure. Volcanoes are fascinating, people love them; it's a fact of life."
While he's not a volcanologist, Wallace says he absorbs information from scientists and historians to understand how geothermal activity shapes the area and its people. He points to the Hatepe eruption 26,000 years ago, thought to have emptied Lake Taupō and covered 20,000sq km of land with ash. It is reported the reason we know it occurred on this date is because people in Rome and China documented the sky turning red.
"All the volcanoes - as happened with White Island, Ruapehū, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe - have a history of eruptions," he says.
Wallace says live volcanoes are part of the region's appeal.
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"We've had the centre nearly 16 years. If a volcano doesn't erupt for 16 years, it's like we're telling lies."
He says eruptions add to the area's mystique, though there's no doubt Whakaari's blast was tragic.
"The reality is, some miners were killed in 1914, then we've had pretty much a clear run for 100 years and while it has erupted, people are only on the island a few hours a day, and not every day. It's just one of those horrifically unlucky situations. It could've happened an hour later and wouldn't have had the same effect."
As for Ruapehū, Wallace recalls the 1995/96 eruptions which happened during ski season. No was reported hurt, and the EQC website says scientists had noticed increased activity. "... in late August, and again on 18 and 20 September, 1995, small eruptions occurred producing mud flows from Crater Lake. Three days later, at around 5pm, as hundreds of skiers were finishing their day on the slopes of Ruapehū's ski areas, the volcano made its presence felt with a hiss and a roar."
"Water, steam and ash were suddenly and violently blasted into the sky. Boulders were thrown up to 1.5 kilometres from the crater. Skiers fled. Those in nearby cities like Whanganui watched as a cloud of steam and volcanic ash rose 12 kilometres into the air. Lahars raced down the mountain's valleys at speeds of up to 90km/h, with one narrowly missing the Whakapapa ski field where skiers had queued just an hour earlier."
Another eruption at Mt Ruapehū in 2007 resulted in injuries to a skifield worker and a climber. At the time, GNS duty volcanologist Craig Miller told NZME the "steam-driven" eruption occurred without warning. "Looking at our seismic instruments, it was pretty much from nothing to full-on in a minute."
The Whakapapa ski area is equipped with sirens to warn those on the mountain.
Volcanology adviser Harry Keys told RNZ in 2014 lahars on Ruapehū were a "low probability, high consequence" event. That meant although the risk to any one person was very low, there could be nearly 3000 people on a busy day on the ski field. Harry says he has calculated the eruption detection system has reduced risk by about 98 per cent, but notes a large lahar going through the ski field on a busy day could still have the potential to cause many deaths.
The 1953 eruption of Mount Ruapehū caused New Zealand's worst rail disaster. A lahar (mudflow) rushed down the Whangaehu River and damaged the rail bridge, derailing the train and killing 151 people.
Tauranga historian Buddy Mikaere says he remembers happening upon the scene in Tangiwai while travelling with his parents.
"My mother and father thought it was a huge event. My dad was always in a hurry, but we stopped and got out of the car and could still see some wreckage of railway cars in the river."
Alert Levels and Eruptions
Geonet, a collaboration between the Earthquake Commission and GNS Science, provides geological hazard information for New Zealand's volcanoes, including those in the Taupō Volcanic Zone.
Geonet issues volcanic alert levels ranging from 0 - no volcanic unrest - to 5 - major volcanic eruption. Its website states, "An eruption may occur at any level, and levels may not move in sequence as activity can change rapidly".
As of December 13, the site stated the following alert levels and eruptions for volcanoes in the Taupō zone:
• Whakaari/White Island, alert level 2, last erupted Monday, December 9. Forty-seven people visited the island Monday. Of those, eight were confirmed dead as of Friday morning. Nine others are still missing, presumed killed and 23 were critically injured. A rescue operation to remove the bodies from the island was underway yesterday morning. GNS Science has said the volcano has become "increasingly unstable".
• Ruapehū, at alert level 1, which means minor volcanic unrest, is the highest mountain on the North Island at 2797m. It last erupted in 2007.
"This was an explosive eruption, lasting about 7 minutes. During the eruption explosions spread ash, rocks and water across the summit area, producing lahars in two valleys including one in the Whakapapa ski field. In contrast with the previous eruptions in 1996, there was no high ash plume to produce ash fallout over a wide area."
• Mayor Island (alert level 0) last erupted about 6300 years ago.
"Large amounts of ash fell on the nearby North Island, and large pyroclastic flows entered the sea, almost certainly generating tsunami."
• Ngauruhoe, at alert level 0, is the biggest and youngest of the Tongariro cones at 7000 years old. According to Geonet, it is the most continuously active of New Zealand's volcanoes, with many eruptions recorded by Māori before European colonisation. Ngauruhoe erupted throughout 1973, discharging red-hot blocks of lava. In 1974 and 1975 there were explosive eruptions of ash, and blocks of lava were thrown as far as 3km away. During the last violent eruption, gases streamed from the crater for several hours, producing a churning plume of ash that towered up to 13km above the crater. This column then collapsed and formed ash and scoria avalanches that swept down Ngauruhoe.
• Okataina (includes Tarawera), alert level 0. The 1886 Tarawera eruption is the most lethal to have occurred in New Zealand's recorded history. Its rumblings were heard as far south as Blenheim, in the South Island. A 17km rift opened, expelling ash and rocks for hours. Hot magma which came into contact with Lake Rotomahana caused huge explosions, covering the region with mud and ash up to one metre deep. Many buildings collapsed. Villages were buried under hot heavy ash and mud and more than 100 people were killed [the number of deaths and villages vary in historical accounts]. The Māori village of Te Wairoa, its pā and whare were completely buried. The Pink and White Terraces, considered one of the great natural wonders of the world were also destroyed. In their book, New Zealand's Worst Disasters (2016 ed.), Graham Hutchins and Russell Young write the Tarawera eruption came as little surprise to local Māori. "... particularly after the Māori prophet Tuhoto, speaking after the tourist boat had returned to Te Wairoa, predicted a great disaster with the death of many." Hutchins and Young describe the eruption as, "an unholy explosion" which could be heard for hundreds of miles from the site.
• Rotorua caldera is today a lake. The volcano last erupted less than 25,000 years ago.
• Taupō volcano last erupted over 1800 years ago and is today filled by New Zealand's largest lake.
• Tongariro (alert level 0) contains multiple volcanic cones. Tongariro erupted twice in 2012 (August 6 and November 21) at Te Māri. In November 1869 a large eruption (which lasted until October 1897) formed the upper Te Māri Crater. Māori descriptions talk of "bright red flame through the smoke that would burst and fall like snow". In November 1892, Te Māri again belched forth an immense quantity of steam, mud and boulders; the ejected material rose 600m to 900m before rushing down the mountain side.
Whakaari/White Island History
Māori first visited Whakaari/White Island in the early 1800s, fishing and catching mutton birds. According to a 2014 NZME story, Māori often cooked their catch in steam from the crater vents.
Captain Cook sailed past the island in 1769 naming it White Island for its appearance, though a Bay of Plenty Times article from 1921 quotes a Whakatāne settler saying Cook mentioned the island during his three times around it, but never actually saw it. In 1826, missionary Henry Williams and botanist Allan Cunningham landed on the island from the mission schooner Herald.
The 1921 article says around 1838, a trader named Phillip Tapsell negotiated for the purchase of the land from the Patuai tribe as well as Whale Island.
The island has had a rotation of owners since 1861 when it was thought to be sold by a Bay of Plenty chief to a European for "two hogshead of rum".
Sulphur deposits attracted interest and a former judge, JA Wilson, bought the island in 1874.
Mikaere writes: "A company formed to mine the deposits promised much but was under capitalised and went bust in 1886 with its investors losing heavily. Some of them were so incensed they lit a bonfire on the beach and burnt an effigy of the judge."
The 1921 BOP Times article says though Wilson commandeered a small vessel to bring several tonnes of sulphur to Tauranga and Auckland, "The venture was not a success as the difficulty of landing and loading left no profit margin."
The Thames Advertiser in October 1885 reported men working on White Island tried to leave on their boat and refused to return.
"It seems that during the past week the volcanic eruption was something terrific, and the men considered their lives in imminent danger, so much so that they had got their boat out, and would have put to sea but that it was blowing a gale from the sou'-west , and such a sea running that they took shelter where best they could, and waited in fear and trembling to learn their fate."
An Australian syndicate bought the island in 1934 to produce salt "using fumaroles for the evaporation of seawater", according to a recent NZME article, which goes on to state the plan failed and the island was sold to Auckland share broker George Buttle in 1936. The new owner commented he "rather liked the idea of owning a volcano".
Later, he wrote: "I am setting the impossible task of trying to let you have some idea of the fascination that White Island has for us. Strange as it may seem, the island is unbelievably beautiful and beyond description. Surely it is one of the wonders of the world ..."
Whakaari has been in the Buttle family ever since.
In the 2016 book Islands, Bruce Ansley writes the White Island Sulphur Company of Vancouver acquired the land in 1913 and mining resumed. In 1914, part of the crater wall collapsed, causing a landslide burying the mining camp, killing all 10 men (historians say there may have been one or two more) working there. Searchers found no sign of the factory nor the men's accommodation, according to Ansley. They found only paw prints which led them to the disaster's sole survivor, a cat they named Peter.
Fertiliser production started nine years later with a "rather nervous workforce", according to Ansley, who also wrote: "Some had answered advertisements inviting them to live and work on a Pacific Island, true as far as it went. They found no women in grass skirts. Instead their eyes were constantly streaming in the acid steam, they coughed incessantly and inside the crater endured noise like a modern jet engine, and had to clean their teeth three times a day to stop them turning black."
The enterprise died in the Depression, despite testimonials such as one printed in a 1929 Northern Advocate advertisement. It quoted a farmer saying his cows and horses preferred grazing land fertilised with White Island fertiliser. "From the very first the cows gave the White Island plot preference, making straight for it as soon as they entered the paddock."
The island became a scenic reserve in December 1953, and the Buttle family sells the rights to conduct tours to operators such as White Island Tours.
Ansley wrote of visiting the island when it at alert level one.
"People could go to the island up to level two, which indicated moderate to heightened volcanic unrest, but I was happy not to be among them. Level one was bizarre enough and besides, the 1980 Mt St Helen eruption in Washington State had killed many volcano-watchers."
Ngāti Awa Group Holdings bought White Island Tours from founders Peter and Jenny Tait in 2017, who had started the company 25 years earlier.
The deal gives Ngāti Awa exclusive rights to land boats on Whakaari.
Whakatāne Historical Society President Tiena Jordan says she has visited White Island three times, once with White Island Tours, and twice more with family and friends.
"I might've viewed it differently than most people because I was in the research library at the museum. I looked at the machinery, I looked at the gannet colony - bird banding used to take place there."
Despite her researcher's perspective, Jordan says she was still fascinated by the island and also aware of its dangers.
"I was always a bit in awe ... a couple parties kept straying off track and were told stay on. You don't know whether there are fumaroles underneath that you can't see and you're likely to fall in them."
Jordan says Whakatāne Library's museum section and Information Centre both have White Island displays.
"Even before 1900, excursions would go out there and people would be wearing those long dresses and bonnets to the island. There are neat photos of that in the museum photography collection."
In addition to photos, Jordan says Ham radio call cards were found, showing someone on the island was making radio calls.
If there's one thing we've learned from history about volcanoes, says Jordan, it's this:
"Every now and then it's gonna blow, and it's not always gonna tell you, either."
Legends of Whakaari/White Island
Whakaari features prominently in traditional literature, according to a report given to the Waitangi Tribunal in 1993. The report states the earliest manuscript version of the account of Ngātoro-i-Rangi's ascent of Tongariro was written in 1849 by Wiremu Maihi te Rangikaheke, of Ngāti Rangiwewehi.
Whakaari was where Ngātoro's relatives kindled the fire, which was brought to warm him on the freezing slopes of Tongariro: "He therupon rose and directed his mind and spiritual thoughts to Hawaiki, so that his call thereto might reach his ancestors… Oh! My granddames oh! Bring hitherward unto me some fire. I will perish by the southern winds."
The manuscript says the old dames kindled the fire and brought it onto Whakaari, where it spread. "Then indeed he saw [fire] breaking forth from within that mountain, and thus erupt. And behold! He was now quite recovered."
Historian Buddy Mikaere writes of two legends in his December 11 column in the Bay of Plenty Times. The first is the story of Ngatoro-i-Rangi's ascent of Tongariro; the second involves Te Tahi O Te Rangi, whose powers people feared.
"But they could not kill him outright as that would bring disaster on them all. Instead they devised a plan to abandon him on their next visit to Whakaari."
The plan: gather the young of titi - mutton birds - on the slopes of the volcano.
While people gathered birds, Mikaere writes Te Tahi O Te Rangi slept in a small cave for hours, awakening to realise he'd been abandoned, as canoes in the distance returned to Whakatāne.
"The resourceful tohunga [expert] summoned a whale to carry him back to the shore and the animal quickly delivered him back to his home. He sat himself down on a rock and watched with contempt as the crews slunk past him in shame."
A third tribal legend known by those growing up in the Ngāti Tuwharetoa area, which links their people to their mountains. That story tells of Putauaki and Ruawahi falling in love and having a son.
Over time, the two lovers became more distant and Ruawahia would gaze at Tongariro. Putauaki noticed and decided to leave.
Meanwhile, Whakaari showed interest in Putauaki, prompting him to try to make his way to sea to be near her.
The love triangle resulted in anger. Putauaki only made it to Kawerau and when Ruawahia realised he was gone she burst into tears, filling the hole Putautaki left behind, today called Lake Tarawera.
The union between Putauaki and Whakaari didn't happen. When Whakaari smokes, it's believed to be signals calling Putauaki to join her.
Previous Whakaari Eruptions - GNS Science
On April 27 a short-lived eruption occurred in the evening. It deposited material on the crater floor and some crater walls. The eruption and associated small collapse of the lake edge also formed a new depression in the north east corner of the 1978/90 Crater Complex.
2012-2013: An explosive eruption occurred on August 5, 2012 with a period of ash emissions. This was followed by heating in the Crater Lake and extrusion of a small lava dome between October and December, 2012. Steam and sulphur explosions followed in February to April, 2013, removing the lake. By June, the lake was re-established. A further explosive eruption followed on August 20 and again on October 4, 8, 11, 2013. In November 2015, a large landslide slipped into the lake.
1975-2000: Erupting from December 1975 to September 2000, the longest historic eruption episode. During this period, many collapse and explosion craters developed. For long periods active vents in these craters emitted volcanic ash. The last major eruption of this episode was in late July 2000 and covered the crater floor area in scoria. It also displaced a crater lake and formed a new explosion crater 150m across.
Excerpted from geonet.org.nz/about/volcano/whiteisland