At Least Six Tourists Dead After New Zealand Volcano Erupts

Forty-seven people were visiting the most active volcano in the country when it erupted on Monday afternoon

Mt. White erupts in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty on December 11, 2019
Of the 47 visitors to the island at the time of the eruption, six died, eight are missing and 31 remain hospitalized. Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted unexpectedly Monday afternoon. At the time of the eruption, 47 people were on the island, a popular tourist attraction located in the Bay of Plenty. As of this morning, six people have been confirmed dead and eight more are still missing, report Jamie Tarabay and Damien Cave at the New York Times. Thirty-one people are currently hospitalized with burns and injuries, while three have been treated and released.

Due to strong winds and the possibility of more eruptions, rescuers have not yet been able to access the island. Flights over the island to search for survivors have not yet identified signs of life. Missing persons include citizens from Australia, Germany, China, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the United States and several local tour operators. Many visitors were on excursions from cruise ships visiting the area.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time and in your sorrow,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference in Whakatane, the nearby coastal community that serves as the gateway to the scenic island. “Our duty is to return loved ones.”

Though the aftermath of the tragedy is still unfolding, people are already asking why tourists were visiting the volcano in the first place. CNN’s Julie Hollingsworth reports more than 10,000 tourists visit the volcano every year for an affordable half-day adventure. The decision whether to visit the island on a given day is at the discretion of tour operators, which take paying customers to the volcano via boat and helicopter.

Three weeks ago, managers at GeoNet—the agency in charge of New Zealand’s eruption alert system—raised the volcano’s risk rating from level one to two on a five-point scale. While that may not seem too concerning, the White Island volcano is notoriously hard to predict. Between 1975 and 2001, it has had lots of small eruptions, as well as larger outbursts in 2011, 2012 and 2016.

Some experts, like volcanologist Ray Cas of Melbourne’s Monash University, believe the island should have been off limits.

“[W]hen the alert level reaches two on that particular island, it should be a no-go zone,” he tells 1News. “The important thing about that volcano is its unpredictability. We know from past events which may happen every few years, you can have these unexpected explosions even when the alert level is as low as two. The big danger there is you can get these unexpected, unpredictable explosions with very terrible consequences we saw yesterday.”

In another article at the New York Times, Tarabay and Cave report that New Zealand may be considering criminal charges for tour operators who put people in harm’s way. Jurisdiction on the island has a complicated history. The volcano was purchased by a private party in the 1930s. The government hoped to buy it in the 1950s, but the private party would not sell. Instead, they agreed to the designation as a private scenic reserve, making it subject to New Zealand’s Reserves Act. The island's owners designated White Island Tours as the main tour operator in 1997.

In recent years, New Zealand has promoted itself as an adventure tourism capital, writes Michael Lueck, who studies tourism at the Auckland University of Technology, for The Conversation. Part of the adventurous allure includes letting tourists get up close with an active volcano. While White Island Tours has a sterling safety record and has won awards for workplace safety, Lueck argues an accepted set of guidelines for volcano tourism doesn’t exist.

Monash University volcanologist Jozua van Otterloo tells the Times that he questions the promotion of such a dangerous place as a tourism attraction.

“There has to be more respect for nature. We can’t assume we can access anything we want,” he says. “This is something policymakers and the public need to consider. Even though this is such a great place, should we be allowing people to go in such large numbers?”

Whether anyone is at fault for the tragedy will be determined later. For now, officials are focusing on those that are missing or injured, many of whom suffered horrific burns and ash inhalation. People viewing the volcano from the bay helped to rescue people from the island, shuttling injured people to paramedics.

Nick Perry at the Associated Press reports that it’s currently unclear whether the island will ever open again to commercial visitors.

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