Forty seven visitors were on White Island, also known as Whakaari, off the coast of New Zealand when the island’s volcano erupted on December 9. Six people have died as a result of the eruption and several more are severely injured and burned. This sudden tragedy has led many to question why the Island, which is home to New Zealand’s most active Volcano, was open for visitors. GeoNet, an agency which assesses volcanic risk activity levels in New Zealand increased its monitoring of the volcano’s activity from level zero to two in the weeks leading up to the eruption.

Volcano on White Island, New Zealand (Source Wikimedia Commons/Krzysztof Belczyński)
Volcano on White Island, New Zealand (Source Wikimedia Commons/Krzysztof Belczyński)

When the volcano erupted on Monday December 10th, just after 2 pm local time, it propelled clouds of ash some 12,000 feet in the air. The ash and harmful gasses from the eruption caused more than thirty people to be rushed to hospitals on the mainland, including twenty seven people who had burns covering more than 30% of their bodies. The ability for medical providers across the country to treat the rapid influx of burn victims reached maximum capacity. Further, many patients are still receiving airway support after suffering inhalation burns from the toxic ash. Volcanologists also believe that hot rock debris, along with poisonous gas from the acidic fluid in the volcano’s crater, have caused the patient’s burns to be so acute.

 With several people still missing from the tourism group and the survival of some of the burn patients in question, the incident is under investigation by New Zealand’s Coroner. Since White Island is private property, tour groups and other travellers must be granted permission to visit the land. White Island Tours, the organization which took visitors to Island on the day of its recent eruption, is able to make its own decision on whether the Island is safe for visitors as long as it complies with New Zealand’s national safety standards organization, WorkSafe. In the days following the eruption, Worksafe has also opened an investigation of the fatalities from the eruption. 

While the eruption did not affect the daily routines of most New Zealanders, the incident does call into question the protocol for visits to the Island and how this situation could have been handled differently. Some believe GeoNet’s monitoring scale should be more effectively communicated to visitors. Further, the incident warns of the potential for future eruptions and disasters to overwhelm the country’s medical systems and emergency response services. For example, doctors treating patients with burns in New Zealand’s hospitals have ordered skin from Australia and The United States. This level of international coordination following the eruption is an important demonstration of collaborative resilience.

Sources and Further Reading

High chance of another eruption at New Zealand’s White Island, further hampering rescue efforts –  CNN

New Zealand has ordered more than 1,290 square feet of skin for volcano victimsCNN

Should Tourists have been on New Zealand’s Volcanic White Island ? CNN

‘No signs of life’ on New Zealand’s White Island following deadly volcanic eruptionThe Washington Post