explainer

The question everyone's asking after White Island: Why were people allowed on the volcano?

A website for one of the tour companies offering to take you up New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island promises “364 days a year availability”, with Christmas Day the only exception.

Tours include a scenic 80 minute boat trip to the island to get a first-hand view of the active volcano. There’s a caveat though – tours are only confirmed the night prior due to the weather. Safety gear including gas masks and hard hats are included.

This is standard across most of the tours available to the tourist destination, which has entertained visitors for up to 30 years.

The Quicky did a deep dive into the geology of volcanoes. Post continues after podcast.

On Monday afternoon, 47 people, including tourists visiting from Australia, the UK, the US and China, were on New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island when it erupted, sending plumes of ash 3700 metres into the sky.

Since the incident occurred, six people have died, including one person who died from their injuries, and 31 victims who were caught up in the eruption, including 13 Australians, have been taken to hospital.

At the time, there was a level two alert in place for the volcano. That’s the highest alert level before an eruption takes place and indicates “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest” with the “potential for eruption hazards”. It has been on that level since November 18.

Since Monday, many of the local tour companies’ websites have gone blank. If you try to view them, you’ll see a line telling visitors “we are currently experiencing an emergency.”

But as New Zealand and Australia grapples with the disaster and the families of those killed come to terms with their loss, there’s a question that keeps coming up.

Why were tourists allowed to visit an active volcano?

white island new zealand volcano
White Island exploded on Monday killing at least five people, with eight more still missing. Image: Getty.
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Mamamia's news podcast The Quicky spoke to geologist Chris Elders from the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Curtin University. He explained that it's difficult to determine exactly when a volcano will erupt.

"Sometimes with some volcanoes there might be warning signs; increased amounts of seismic activity or increases in the amount of gas or evidence of small eruptions. That might tell you an eruption might occur sometime in the near future, but being any more precise than that is very difficult," he said.

"In this instance there were very few warning signs perhaps other than this slightly increased level of volcanic activity that was observed."

The whole reason tourists are drawn to places like White Island is to see a live volcano.

"It's part of the attraction of going...to see steam coming from some of the vents, to see bubbling mud. If there were higher levels of activity like rocks being thrown up in the air that would be the point where people would be advised to stay away," explained Professor Elders.

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Professor Elders also thinks the 'riskiness' of activities such as this come down to public perception.

"Although on a different scale it's similar to the Boxing Day tsunami that occurred in 2004. People weren't aware of the risk because they hadn't seen something like that happen in living memory. It's a similar thing here really, it appears like something you can do safely it's just sometimes something unpredictable will occur and in this instance we were obviously very unprepared for this," he told The Quicky.

After all, White Island is not the only one. Stromboli in Italy is also a popular tourist volcano and according to Professor Elders "it's a very similar volcano with similar alert level warnings in place. It's not unusual for people to visit volcanoes of this nature."

White Island is not the first time tourists have died from a volcano eruption. In July a tourist died on Stromboli in an explosion. A few years ago 40 died on Mount Ontake in Japan and six died in the Philippines in 2013.

A quick Google search shows you Wyoming, Costa Rica, Iceland, Guatemala, Mexico, Spain and Washington are among the other locations around the world still offering live volcano tours.

But should they be? Does the tragedy at White Island indicate the need for a re-examination of the risks of volcano tourism?

Here's an update on the current search in New Zealand for the remaining victims. Post continues after video.

Video by 9News

Passengers from the cruise ship that travelled to Whakaari/White Island on Monday say they weren't warned about the extent of the dangers while visiting the area.

Vanessa Lugo from Newcastle told the Herald Sun the ship provided them information about the island but did not mention the alert level.

"There’s been no warnings about it … my son-in-law never would have booked the excursion if he knew there was any chance of them being injured,” said another passenger, who is a relative of one of those injured.

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the question in a press conference. When asked by a journalist if the eruption "marks the end of  tourism on White Island", she said: "It is a very unpredictable volcano and there are questions that will be asked and do need to be answered by the appropriate authorities."

New Zealand police have made it clear "it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation."

WorkSafe New Zealand has also opened a health and safety investigation into the disaster.

A ban on volcano tourism however opens up questions about adventure tourism on the whole. Tourists have died bungee jumping, white water rafting, riding elephants on safari.

Time will tell what the police and WorkSafe investigations determine about the current system in New Zealand in terms of warnings and tourism, but one volcanologist has made his opinion (and that of many of his colleagues clear) telling The Guardian:

"I think there should also be quite a bit of soul-searching about how the alert level systems are understood and used. They [tour operators]do seem quite artificial and quite out of touch with operational needs."

Feature image: Instagram/Whiteislandtours.

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