An entire village wiped out & a 'perfect cocktail' for disaster: The history of White Island.


At 2.11pm on Monday, December 9, New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted.

47 people were on the island at the time. At least 16 people, 10 of whom are Australian, were killed by the blast. It has been the volcano’s most fatal eruption.

Professor Ray Cas from Monash University has visited White Island twice and told the Australian Science Media Centre that it “has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years”.

“Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.”

white island eruption history
Recovery operation team at White Island on December 13, 2019. Image: Getty.

Being the country's most active cone volcano, natural disasters on White Island are not rare.

Here is a timeline of the volcano's history.

September 1914

In 1914, a crater wall collapsed which saw a landslide destroy a sulphur-mining village where a number of men worked and lived.

At least 10 miners were killed. There was a sole survivor: Peter the Great, a tabby cat.

Peter the Great was discovered during the rescue mission for the natural disaster, three weeks after its occurrence. According to Auckland Museum, Peter the Great "was found hungry but uninjured".

A weekly newspaper, Otago Witness, described the aftermath of the landslide at the time.

"The scarcity of signs of house furniture suggests that possibly the greater portion of the living quarters was simply buried where it stood and the men with it," the newspaper published.

1975 - 2000

In 1975, the volcano was in an almost continuous state of eruption for 25 years until 2000.

This was the longest eruption episode in the volcano's history, according to GeoNet, New Zealand’s official earthquake monitoring body.

This period was marked by the collapse and explosion of craters.

The last significant eruption occurred in July 2000. With turn of the millennium, the volcanic activity lessened and the eruption episode ended.


Side note... Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky did a deep dive into why tourists were allowed on White Island after the alert level was raised. Post continues below.


In August 2012, another major explosive eruption occurred which led to the volcano extruding lava.

This was followed by steam and sulphur explosions in 2013, which scientists say would have been deadly had anyone been on the island.


white island eruption history
An aerial image of White Island in 2016. Image: Getty.

The last eruptive episode occurred in April 2016, in which a short-lived explosion which saw green ash cover the crater floor and walls, and led to a new crater being formed. The eruption occurred during the night time and no one was injured.

It briefly emitted ash from a vent in September as well.

Despite the volcano's temperamental history, daily tours see over 10,000 people visit the volcano each year.

In 2012, Dr Erik Klemetti wrote an article titled 'How Dangerous is Visiting New Zealand's White Island?' for American Magazine Wired.

The volcanologist predicted the daily tours on White Island were a "perfect cocktail"  for tragedy, adding that: "By making the visits to the White Island crater seem routine, it can lull the tour operators and tourists into a false sense of security."

Dr Klemetti further asked: "Will it take half a dozen deaths at White Island to change the culture, or is that merely the cost of being adventurous?"

Today, following White Island's deadliest eruption in recorded history, the future of tourism on the island remains uncertain as the community continues to grapple with the grief of the significant loss.

Feature Image: Getty. 

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