2019 Whakaari / White Island eruption

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2019 Whakaari / White Island eruption
White Island 9 December 2019 eruption.jpg
Whakaari / White Island, nine minutes after the eruption
VolcanoWhakaari / White Island
Date9 December 2019 (2019-12-09)
Time14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC)
TypePhreatic eruption
LocationBay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand
37°31′12″S 177°10′57″E / 37.52000°S 177.18250°E / -37.52000; 177.18250Coordinates: 37°31′12″S 177°10′57″E / 37.52000°S 177.18250°E / -37.52000; 177.18250
VEI2 [1]
ImpactFatalities: 20 (including 2 who are missing, declared dead)[2][3]
Injuries: 27

The volcanic island Whakaari / White Island in New Zealand's northeastern Bay of Plenty region explosively erupted on 9 December 2019 at 14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC).[4] There were 47 people on the island at the time. Twenty people were killed, including two who are missing and declared dead, and a further twenty-seven people suffered injuries, many of whom suffered severe burns.[5] The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity in the area as well as heavy rainfall, low visibility and toxic gases hampered recovery efforts over the week following the incident.[6][7][8]

Experts identified the event as a phreatic eruption: a release of steam and volcanic gases that caused an explosion, launching rock and ash into the air.[9]


Whakaari / White Island in 2013

Whakaari / White Island[a] is an active andesite stratovolcano, situated 48 km (30 mi) off the north-northeast coast of the North Island of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty. The volcano has erupted many times in recent history, including several times in the 1980s.[10] A major eruption formed a new crater in 2000, and small eruptions occurred in 2012,[11] 2013,[12] and 2016.[13]

The volcano had been showing signs of unrest for several weeks before the 2019 eruption. In October 2019, volcanic tremors and sulphur dioxide gas were at their highest levels since 2016, indicating that an eruption was more likely to occur,[13] and on 18 November, the volcano was rated at Volcanic Alert Level 2, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest", due to increased activity.[14]

On 24 November, two weeks prior to the eruption, a moment magnitude (Mw ) 5.9 earthquake lasting approximately one minute with an epicentre located 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) northeast of White Island occurred, and was felt by people throughout New Zealand as far south as Christchurch.[15] Seismic activity can be a contributing factor to hydrothermic eruptions, due to a reduction of pressure within the geothermal system.[16][17]

The island is monitored by GNS Science with three web cameras, one seismograph, and a microphone to detect volcanic explosions. The organisation also makes regular visits to test water, gas and soil, and to survey surface deformation.[18]

Tourists regularly visit the island, primarily through White Island Tours. The organisation posted a statement on their web page before the eruption, which stated:[19]

Whakaari/White Island is currently on Alert Level 2. This level indicates moderate to heightened volcanic unrest, there is the potential for eruption hazards to occur. White Island Tours operates through the varying alert levels but passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level. White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at the various levels.

— White Island Tours


The crater rim, captured by webcam one minute before eruption. Hikers can be seen walking in the centre of the image.
External video
New Zealand volcano: Fatal Eruption on White Island

The volcano erupted on 9 December 2019 at 14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC).[4] The ash plume rose 3.7 kilometres (12,000 ft) into the air.[20]

It was initially believed that there were about 100 tourists on or near to the island when the eruption took place; later, this figure was revised to 47 people who were on the island at the time.[21] Of the people on the island at the time of the eruption, 38 were passengers on a shore excursion from cruise ship Ovation of the Seas,[22] which was on a 12-day voyage around New Zealand and had berthed at the Port of Tauranga that morning.[23]

Some visitors were waiting for vessels to take them off the island at the time of the eruption. Tour operators and these vessels rescued 23 people from the island before it was officially declared unsafe.[24] A passenger on one of the boats stated that his vessel attempted to first outrun the ash cloud before many on the vessel noticed a gaggle of people on the jetty that needed help. Those that were brought onto the boat were aided by the original passengers who used water bottles, jackets and other clothing, inhalers, and eye drops.[25]

Another passenger told reporters that the boat he was on, which was about 200 metres offshore at the time of the eruption, launched an emergency inflatable and retrieved 23 people before returning to the mainland. Paramedics from the New Zealand Coastguard boarded the boat before it reached the docks to tend the injured.[26]

Noticing the eruption from the mainland shore, three commercial helicopter pilots conducted rescue missions to the island in their helicopters, bringing back twelve survivors. They observed several bodies in the area, but concentrated on bringing back the survivors.[27] The pilots reportedly attempted to return to the island to collect the bodies they had seen but were stopped by police; however, they were consulted later in order to collect the bodies once the area became more stable.[28]


Victims by citizenship[29][30][31]
Citizenship Deaths Injured
Australia 14 10
United States 4 5
New Zealand 2 3
Germany 4
United Kingdom 2
China 2
Malaysia 1
Total 20 27

The forty-seven people on the island at the time of the eruption were identified as twenty-four Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and one Malaysian.[32] A passenger on a rescue boat stated that many of the injured had severe burns as many of them had worn just T-shirts and shorts for the day.[26]

At 18:35 on 9 December, media were told there was one confirmed fatality, with more likely to be dead as several were missing,[13] while many were injured, seven critically.[20] It was stated that it was still too dangerous for the emergency services to get onto the island to rescue people as it is covered in ash and volcanic material.[4][33] Later the same day, officials declared that forty-seven people were on the island at the moment of the eruption: five were killed, 34 injured and rescued, while eight are missing and presumed dead.[34]

Three other people died in hospital the next days, bringing the death toll to eight.[35][36] Six more bodies were found during an operation on the island, bringing the death toll to fourteen. On 14 December, it was announced that the death toll had risen to fifteen as another injured person died in hospital.[37] A day later, an Australian citizen who was repatriated died in hospital, bringing the death toll to sixteen, plus two victims whose bodies had not been recovered.[38] Another victim died from injuries in hospital, pushing the death toll to 19 including two missing people that are presumed dead. A further victim died at a hospital in Australia on 12 January 2020 bring the total to 20,.[3] Authorities are still working to recover two more bodies,[39] although as of 15 January efforts have been scaled down.[40]


Over the days following the initial eruption, the death toll steadily rose as bodies were recovered from the island and as several of the severely burnt victims succumbed to their injuries.[41][35][36][42][43][44][45][46][47] On 15 December it was announced that the death toll had risen to sixteen.[38] The fatalities were identified as thirteen Australian tourists, three Americans and two New Zealand men who worked as guides for White Island Tours.[48] Another victim, an American woman, succumbed to her injuries on 22 December, raising the confirmed death toll to 17 and the number of the American fatalities to four.[49][50]

Due to the severe injuries sustained by those on the island, identification of the deceased was carried out by a variety of individuals including a pathologist, a forensic dentist and a fingerprint officer. This work is also aided by officers creating a profile on the victims, which include descriptions of appearance, clothing, photos, fingerprints, medical and dental records and DNA samples. The information is then matched to evidence gathered from the deceased individual in the post-mortem examination.[51]


All but three of the survivors suffered severe or critical injuries and the vast majority were badly burned. They were initially taken to Whakatane Hospital, where they were triaged and stabilised before being transferred to other hospitals. Whakatane Hospital, Tauranga Hospital, and Waikato Hospital in Hamilton all activated their mass casualty plans.[52] On 10 December, the Ministry of Health announced that twenty-five people had been transferred to the country's four burns units in Auckland (Middlemore), Hamilton, Lower Hutt and Christchurch, all of which were at capacity.[53] On 11 December, it was reported that New Zealand had ordered 1,200,000 square centimetres (190,000 sq in) of skin[b] from the United States and Australia to treat patients following the eruption, some of whom have burns on up to 95% of their bodies.[54][55] Three survivors suffered slight injuries.

Thirteen injured Australians were airlifted to Australia from the night of 11 December to receive treatment in hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. Three RAAF planes, a C-130J-30 Super Hercules and two C-17 Globemasters, flew to Christchurch with specialist aircrew and medical equipment on board. Several Australian state governments also supplied aircraft to assist in the airlift. A total of twelve Australians were expected to be airlifted to their homeland.[56][57]

Missing after eruption[edit]

Due to the eruption, those who were confirmed deceased by rescuers were left on the island in favour of those who were still living. Without bodies to physically confirm the individuals' identities many were listed as missing instead of deceased until the body was formally recovered. On 15 December authorities confirmed that the bodies of two victims had yet to be recovered and may have been swept into the sea.[58] Police believe their bodies were initially near a stream, and were swept down the stream during a "significant weather event" on the night of 9 December.[59] On 23 January 2020, the New Zealand coroner declared the missing two to be dead.[2]


Directly after the eruption, the volcanic alert level for the island was raised to 4, but was decreased by 16:30 on the same day to level 3.[18] No further eruptive activity occurred, and on 12 December the volcanic alert level was lowered to 2,[60] signifying "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest."[61] Volcanic tremor increased in the aftermath of the eruption, with small scale gas jetting and steam bursts observed on 13 December, however, the volcanic tremor level dropped that evening.[62] Since the incident, the White Island Tours website has been edited to carry information about the emergency situation.[19]

Ovation of the Seas anchored off Picton on 13 December 2019, four days after the eruption.

Ovation of the Seas postponed its departure from Tauranga until the morning of 11 December as police collected DNA samples from the cabins of the missing passengers.[63][64] Māori townspeople and members of the Ovation of the Seas passengers and crew, held a moment of silence honouring the ship's passengers and other victims. Later a representative of the Māori began a karakia tau te mauri, a traditional blessing to settle the spirit before the ship left.[65] The ship returned to Sydney on 16 December on an altered itinerary via Wellington and Picton. All passengers received the equivalent of one day's fare in on-board credit as compensation.[66]

All those injured and killed in the eruption, regardless of nationality, would be covered by ACC, New Zealand's no-fault accident compensation scheme.[67]


New Zealand Police launched an investigation into the disaster, in conjunction with WorkSafe New Zealand (the country's workplace health and safety regulator).[68]


Ray Cas, a professor emeritus from Monash University, and past president of the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior,[69] published comments about the disaster through the Australian Science Media Centre, claiming that the incident was "a disaster waiting to happen". He felt that the island was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visited.[70][24]

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that "the scale of this tragedy is devastating".[4] On 10 December, Ardern met emergency services personnel who responded to the incident.[71] The local member of Parliament; Anne Tolley stated that the town was shattered by the disaster and their thoughts were with the victims and their families but did not rule out that the tours would end due to the disaster occurring. Tolley claimed the tours were "iconic" and a "centerpiece of the town's tourism."[28]

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that "This is a very, very hard day for many families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy" and announced that an Australian Federal Police forensic team was sent to New Zealand to assist.[72] The Australian Parliament House also lowered its flags at half-mast.[73]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The island, like many geographic features in New Zealand, has a dual Māori/English name. "Whakaari" is the Māori name; "White Island" is the English name.
  2. ^ For comparison, the average adult human body has 20,000 square centimetres (3,100 sq in) of skin.[54]


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External links[edit]