A tower of ash and steam descended on dozens of tourists who were exploring a volcanic island in New Zealand yesterday. At least five people died and up to two dozen more are still missing.
White Island sits about 30 miles offshore from mainland New Zealand. Experts say it’s New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. About 70% of the volcano lies under the sea.
White Island was once a mining location. Now it is mostly a tourist destination. Daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.
Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims believes there were fewer than 50 people on the island when the volcano erupted.
The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000 feet into the air. Hours afterwards, the site was still too dangerous for rescuers to search for the missing.
Michael Schade’s family had been on the island but returned to their cruise ship just before the eruption. He posted video on Twitter. “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 wrote. His video showed a wall of ash and steam around the island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash.
People are questioning why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern traveled to the region late Monday. She says the incident was “very significant.” She says the focus remains on the search-and-rescue mission for now. Questions about whether tourists should be visiting will be addressed later.
“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” says Ken Gledhill from GeoNet. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”
(Aerial photo of White Island after its volcanic eruption on Monday, December 9, 2019. George Novak/New Zealand Herald via AP)