What happened when Whakaari erupted in 2019?

The volcanic eruption on Whakaari on 9 December 2019 was a devastating event for hundreds of people and the effects of this natural disaster are still being felt today. The volcano is one of the most active in all of New Zealand. So what happened that day?

Where is Whakaari?

Whakaari (also known as the White Island) is an uninhabited island off the coast of New Zealand. It is just 50km east of the North Island. Whakaari is a stratovolcano, a type of volcano made up of layers of ash, pumice, and lava. The majority of the volcano’s height sits beneath the ocean surface with the crater on the surface of the island. Sulfur deposits from the steaming crater have left glistening, yellow sculptures on the landscape. Its close position to the coast of the mainland and its fascinating geology have meant the island has been opened up to tourists to enjoy. Just a short 90-minute boat ride or 20-minute helicopter ride from Whakatane on the North Island, Whakaari is visited by up to 10,000 tourists every year.

Whakaari (the White Island).
The steaming crater is accessed by tourists on hikes who arrive on the island by boat or helicopter.

The lead-up to the Whakaari eruption

In the days leading up to the eruption, seismic activity was recorded and the alert level was raised to a two on a five-level scale – meaning there was heightened volcanic activity. Despite this, the island was still open to tourists who, on the day of the eruption, were visiting the island for a tour. In the Netflix documentary: The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, survivors reflect on the anxiety they felt at being told that the alert level has been raised. Many tourists felt uneasy and questioned the likelihood of an eruption. They were unaware that one was imminent.

Volcanic alert levels.
Prior to the Whakaari eruption in 2019, geologists had raised the alert level from 1 to 2.

What was the Whakaari eruption like?

The eruption began with a loud explosion that sent a large plume of ash and steam into the air and was followed by a series of smaller eruptions. The plume rose over 11,000 feet and was visible from the mainland. Volcanic ash is made up of small particles of glass and rock. It was propelled out of the volcano at speeds of up to 700 km/h. At temperatures of up to 200 degrees Celcius, there was no escape for many of the tourists. The air became thick with sulfur dioxide making breathing very difficult and the majority of the tourists suffered extreme burns. The island was engulfed in the ash cloud and steam and the eruption lasted 2-3 minutes. It ultimately killed 22 people, injured 28 more, and left many others with physical and psychological trauma.

The survivors that received burns are continually undergoing surgery to alleviate their injuries. Of the 22 that died, 8 passed away on the island. A recovery operation by the New Zealand Army was carried out when it was safe to return following the eruption. Sadly, they could not recover all of the dead. The bodies of Hayden Marshall-Inman, a Whakaari tour guide and tourist Winona Langford have never been found. The other 14 died of their injuries later, some while being rescued and others in hospital.

The effects of the Whakaari eruption

The ash and debris from the eruption blanketed the island, burying buildings and vegetation and creating a thick layer of ash that had to be cleared away. On the mainland, the ash caused disruption to transportation, energy, and communication systems, and forced many people to evacuate their homes. The Whakaari 2019 eruption was a tragedy that not only caused physical destruction but also had a devastating psychological effect on those who were affected. The eruption has been a reminder of the power of nature, and the importance of being prepared for natural disasters like this.

Planning for the future

Following the eruption, the New Zealand government has taken steps to ensure that similar disasters can be prevented in the future. They have implemented an improved hazard monitoring system, as well as improved emergency response plans. Additionally, the government has provided financial assistance to those affected by the eruption and has set up a fund to help with the recovery effort.

The Whakaari 2019 eruption was a devastating event that has had a lasting impact on the people of New Zealand. The government is focusing on getting those affected the help they need to recover. While it will take time for the people involved to heal, the memory of this tragedy will remain with them for many years.