A volcanologist has said the White Island eruption in which at least five people have died was a “disaster waiting to happen” amid calls for an overhaul of how tourist operators use risk ratings issued by experts.
Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, said on Tuesday that experts had concluded there was no hope for the eight people still on the island following the explosion. Another 31 people are in hospital being treated for burns.
Asked if there would be an inquiry into the disaster, she said: “There will be questions that will need to be answered and will be, by the appropriate authorities, but today we’re rightly focused on those who will be affected.”
She noted that tourism operations had been in place “for the better part of 30 years on White Island, it’s been obviously an active volcano throughout that time”. She said a 2016 eruption happened there when it was at level one, out of maximum risk rating of five. “It is an unpredictable, live volcano,” she said.
On Tuesday, New Zealand police said they would launch a criminal investigation into the disaster, which would run in parallel with a health and safety investigation by WorkSafe New Zealand.
Ray Cas, an emeritus professor in geosciences at Monash University, Melbourne said White Island “has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years”. In comments to the Australian Science Media Centre, he said: “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.”
In November, the volcanic alert for Whakaari was raised to two out of a possible five, indicating increased activity; after the eruption, the alert level increased to four. Those alerts are issued by scientists at the geological agency GeoNet, who said in a 3 December report that the island was experiencing “moderate volcanic activity”. There was “substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake”, the bulletin said.
But while scientists in New Zealand are responsible for publicising relevant information about volcanoes, they do not have control over what tourism operators do with it.
Shane Cronin, a volcanologist at the University of Auckland, said the current system meant experts were reporting on the volcano’s activity, but not offering guidance about what people should do.
“One thing that’s gone on in recent years is the increasing number of tour groups and the increasing popularity of the site. So there’s more and more people coming to the site than ever before. That brings perhaps an additional level of risk.”
“I think there should also be quite a bit of soul-searching about how the alert level systems are understood and used,” he said. “They do seem quite artificial and quite out of touch with operational needs.”
He added that there was frequent communication between scientists and tour groups. However, volcanologists have previously clashed with tour operators over the safety of Whakaari. Bradley Scott, who works for the science agency GNS and has been visiting the island for about 40 years, told the New Zealand Herald in 2014 that tour operators had sometimes taken visitors to the island in conditions that worried volcanologists.
“We don’t visit but they still go,” he told the Herald at the time. “We don’t have a legitimate mandate to stop people.”
He added that tour operators to the island – one boat and three helicopter companies – made their own decisions with the available information. “It’s the way New Zealand works,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, Scott said he could not comment because GNS staff were helping the authorities with their recovery operation.
A private island
The island is privately owned by an Auckland family who bought it in 1936. The three current owners, who are Auckland-based brothers Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, did not answer calls on Tuesday.
Tour operators paid the owners for leases, said Tony Bonne, a former dive tourism operator near White Island, and a former mayor of Whakatāne. “It’s not cheap,” he said. “It’s pretty much a commercial operation for the Buttle family.”
The fee to visit the island had earlier been a donation to the Presbyterian church, Bonne said, adding that the family had introduced a more structured system in the 1990s. “Before the 1990s, anybody used to just turn up on a boat and go ashore and have a walk. When the boys took over it became very commercial,” he said.
A 60-80 minute boat cruise to White Island with an hour’s “fully guided tour of the inner crater” cost NZ$229 (£114) for adults, an archived version of the White Island Tours website said. Two-hour helicopter trips to land on and explore the island cost between NZ$700 and NZ$1,100 per person.
Andrew Buttle has said he and brother Peter once camped on the island, helping with research on muttonbirds, according to the New Zealand Herald.
The men’s mother, Beverley Buttle, aged 91, told the Herald on Tuesday: “We really have been very hard hit by this. There’s nothing the family can do.”
‘I always thought we’d have warnings’
Recent visitors to the island also said they had not realised just how potentially hazardous the situation was.
Rania Morosan, a Canadian tourist, had flown to the island by helicopter just after the alert level was raised in November. She said her group was told several times the volcano was active and that they were given hard hats and masks to wear near the crater, “but no specific plan in case of an eruption”.
“It all felt to us more like the safety briefing in aircrafts,” she said. “You are told where the life jackets and the exits are, but you know it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself in this situation.”
The helicopter company she travelled with, Volcanic Air, would not be interviewed on Tuesday, but confirmed one of its helicopters was present when the volcano erupted. All on board had survived, although some had suffered burns.
Katie White, from London, and who visited the island by boat last year, said evacuation plans in case of an eruption were not mentioned by her guides either.
“Genuinely at the time I thought that the jetty or remaining jetty was quite precarious in order to get on and off the island,” she said. “At the time I remember thinking it seemed unsafe and wasn’t sure what we’d do in the event of something happening.”
White Island Tours, the sole company taking tourists to the island by sea, would not comment on Tuesday. Its website has been taken down, but a cached version mentions the potential for eruptions.
“White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at the various levels,” the site said. The company had three boats at or near White Island when it erupted.
The eruption, Bonne said, would have a “significant” impact on the tiny tourist town of Whakatāne; its population of 35,500 is supported by the up to 20,000 tourists who visit White Island each year.
“Our tourism has grown substantially and the bulk of it has been because White Island has been the anchor, it would bring the majority of people to the area,” he said.
“I didn’t realise how fast the island could blow, that’s shocked me.”
“I always thought we’d have warnings.”