On Monday, Whakaari volcano on New Zealand’s White Island erupted, shooting hot blocks of ash and coarse particles into the air while people were exploring the rim.
Eight people have been confirmed dead, with another 27 in the hospital after suffering burns. As of Thursday, New Zealand army troops were still trying to recover bodies from the volcano, which has continued to vent steam and gas following the eruption. GeoNet, New Zealand’s volcano monitoring agency, has put the likelihood of another eruption at 50 to 60 percent in the next 24 hours.
As more details emerge, so do more questions. Here’s what we know.
Why were people still allowed to visit the volcano?
Even with the best available monitoring, it would have been hard to see the signs that Whakaari was about to erupt. GeoNet had reported increased activity at the volcano for several weeks, raising the warning level to 2 out of 5, but still reported that the island was safe for visitors. (A level 2 alert means moderate volcanic unrest.) Currently, Krakatoa in Indonesia is also a level 2, as are two famous volcanoes in Italy, Mount Etna and Stromboli.
Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist in Los Angeles who has worked with active volcanoes and natural hazards on six continents, including South America, Asia, Australia, Mexico, and throughout the continental United States and Hawaii, says this is the worst kind of freak accident—one that was nearly impossible to see coming, even with the best possible information. “Volcanoes don’t operate on anyone’s schedule but their own,” she says. “It’s important to realize that even the best scientific information cannot guarantee your safety.”
White Island Tours, which guided tourists on walks around the volcano’s rim, currently has an inactive website that redirects visitors to the Red Cross Restoring Family Links if they are looking for loved ones.
Not everyone thought tourists should be allowed to visit White Island, which is privately owned. Ray Cas, a volcanologist and emeritus professor of geosciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, wrote in a statement: “White Island 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.”
But Phoenix says she doesn’t see anything inherently dangerous in where visitors were touring—they were doing something that most people would feel was an acceptable risk, she says. “You could make the case that anyone in the area was too close.”
How can I check if a volcano is safe to visit?
Volcanoes in popular tourist locations are typically well monitored, says Phoenix. “So that means the most important thing tourists can do is check—not just with a tour guide, but with the local observatory that is tasked with monitoring the site.”
Specifically, this means looking up the closest observing station and checking on the risk level posted, based on the best available data. Most geological observation stations are updated daily. You can also search current eruptions on the Global Volcanism Program from the Smithsonian Institution.
Volcanology is a young science, however, and researchers are still uncovering new data all the time. (For example, until Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, they didn’t know that volcanoes could blow sideways.) Ironically, educating the public on the science of volcanoes relies partly on people visiting them. “Tourism is actually a vital educational component,” notes Phoenix, because it helps the public understand the dynamic forces at work inside the Earth.
What should I know about risks?
The risk of an eruption while visiting a volcano is tiny. Phoenix says that if travelers want a more worry-free destination, look to volcanoes that haven’t erupted in 10,000 years, and are classified as extinct. The ones in the Cascade range of the Pacific Northwest are good options.
What should I look for in a tour company?
There are more than 1,500 active volcanoes worldwide, from Ethiopia to the Galápagos Islands. Make sure to do research when choosing a volcano tour, and look for an established company that takes safety as its first priority. (Phoenix says that travelers should always give informed consent when visiting a geologically active region.) Once on location, always obey signs and consider packing protective gear, like sturdy shoes for walking on rough, lava-made surfaces, or long pants and leather gloves if you are picking up rocks.
In Iceland, visitors can walk around boiling mud pots and active geysers—all evidence of underground volcanic activity. “The odds of you being there during an eruption are so small,” says Phoenix. “You’re much more likely to be harmed in a wildfire from climate change than an eruption.”
Governments and tour companies want to keep people safe, above all else—it’s to no one’s advantage to have people die on a volcano in their jurisdiction.
How do scientists know when a volcano will erupt?
When it comes to accurately predicting when a volcano will blow, it’s an incredibly complex system—unlike, say, a landslide, which depends on sediment, rainfall, and the angle of the hillside. With eruptions, every volcano has a different signature, and even the same volcano can erupt in different ways at different times. Although scientists and observation labs collect daily data on telling signs like seismic changes that precede eruptions, ground deformation, gas emissions, and changes in gravity and magnetic fields, the monitoring is far from perfect. Patterns are always changing, and there is no single piece of technology that would allow them to predict an eruption. “Volcanoes are like a human body: They’re a network of complex systems,” Phoenix says.
Educational opportunities like volcano tourism can help people understand how volcanoes work, even if those opportunities bring risk with them. “If there has ever been a recent eruption, we can put a giant sticker on it, saying: may erupt again,” says Phoenix. That means people need to ask themselves if they should go, not just if they can go. “It’s terrible when people lose their lives in an event like this. The guiding principle of the science is always to save lives,” says Phoenix.