White Island – December 11, 2019
What happened on Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand on Monday is a tragedy. Our hearts go out to those who lost their lives in the eruption. There is no doubt we live on a dynamic and changing planet. With that comes a dose of unpredictability. Science helps us make projections and forecasts but it is still incredibly hard to make predictions as to when such events as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions will happen. White Island, an active andesitic stratovolcano in the Bay of Plenty, was showing signs of activity over the last few weeks. New Zealand’s geological hazard agency had raised its “volcanic alert level,” from a rating of 1 to 2, indicating that eruptions of steam, gas, mud and rocks could occur with little or no warning.
How do scientists monitor volcanoes? Typically through a combination of plane, ground instrument and visual observations. While seismometers monitor volcanic tremors (associated with magma movement), airborne monitoring can measure CO2, SO2, and H2S gas levels, while webcams capture footage without risking lives. In combination, these factors can help scientists determine whether or not an eruption is imminent. But often times it’s not so simple. Eruptions don’t always happen even if the signs are there.
A question that has been raised to me, as an expedition leader to dynamic places on this planet, is should these kinds of trips, like to White Island, continue? I say yes, but “approach with caution.” How do we get people interested and excited about our planet? Learning about it? Protecting it? Conserving it for future generations? How do we get people to care? We bring them to these places and let them see for themselves. But we do it safely, by using the best scientific information we have, consulting and hiring locals in the places we travel, and having a contingency plan in place in case of emergency. Had there been any indication of unrest, however slight, on Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active stratovolcano in Tanzania, we would not have gone. You can’t outrun physics.