The moment he climbed off the inflatable dingy and onto White Island’s ash-black soil, Professor Ray Cas knew tourists shouldn’t be there.
Professor Cas is one of Australia’s top volcanologists. He and his research team have visited active volcanoes around the world, studying how and why they explode.
Unlike other volcanoes tourists safely visit around the world, White Island is uniquely unstable.
The volcano in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty demonstrated that instability on Monday when it erupted during a tour group visit from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship. Of the 47 people on the island at the time, 24 were Australians.
Tourism operator White Island Flights captured these images of the White Island eruption.Credit:White Island Flights / Supplied
The island’s landscape meant even small explosions posed extreme danger. It is almost impossible to quickly evacuate. And even the most advanced monitoring cannot perfectly predict when a volcano will explode.
“White Island”, Professor Cas says, “has been a disaster waiting to happen.”
A helicopter destroyed in the explosion.Credit:Waikato Times / Supplied
At the same time, “volcano tourism has been growing rapidly around the world,” says Professor Ross Dowling, a tourism expert at Edith Cowan University.
New Zealand has scientific agencies that monitor volcanoes and issue alert levels. But there are no mandatory cut-offs for when a volcano cannot be visited.
Tour operators need to make the call themselves – and they have an obvious financial interest in pushing the envelope.
On Tuesday afternoon New Zealand police announced they were opening a criminal investigation into the tragedy. The country's workplace safety regulator will also investigate.
A disaster waiting to happen
White Island, also known as Whakaari, is a marine stratovolcano, a volcano slowly built up over time by continuous lava eruptions.
The volcano forms the entire island. About 70 per cent of the volcano is below sea level. The part tourists walk on is, essentially, the volcano’s cone.
Professor Cas, who is based at Monash University, last visited in 2008. He remembers walking into a crater that looked like an amphitheatre sculpted by giants. Gas and steam pour from the ground. Lakes filled with near-boiling water dot the area.
“If there is an eruption, the boiling water that gets thrown at you first – it would be close to 100 degrees,” he says.
The volcano is extremely active and unpredictable. That is driven by two factors.
First, White Island sits atop a tectonic plate boundary. The Pacific plate is being slowly pushed beneath the Australian plate.
As this happens, boiling hot magma is generated and pushed up toward the surface.
Most of White Island sits below sea level. This water is constantly penetrating inside the volcano, where it sometimes comes into contact with the rising magma.
“That’s what makes it so active,” says Professor Cas. “There is magma beneath and a constant supply of seawater that is being superheated to explosive temperatures.”
White Island was in a state of eruption between 1975 and 2000, with major eruptions again in 2012, 2013 and 2016.
The only way to and from the island is via small inflatable dingys; 47 people were on the island when it erupted. “In a big volcanic incident, it would be impossible to get people off quickly,” says Professor Cas.
Who owns White Island? Will they be liable?
The question of who is responsible for the tragedy is complicated.
GeoNet, the agency that monitors the volcano, announced less than a week before the tragedy the current seismic unrest did not pose a direct hazard to visitors.
Multiple tour operators had tourists on the island at the time, some from a nearby US-flagged cruise ship. And, unusually, White Island is privately owned.
The tour and cruise ship operators were the most-likely to be held liable, says Professor Ross Dowling, a tourism expert at Edith Cowan University.
“You can sign any amount of waiver forms, as you do when you go bungee jumping,” he said. “But they are worth nothing when it comes to a point of law.”
But the tourists also bore some of the risk, he said. Part of the attraction of visiting an active volcano was the minor risk that accompanies it, he said.
White Island was originally the site of a sulphur mine, established in 1885. That project ended in 1914 when part of the crater wall collapsed, and a landslide destroyed the mine and the miners’ village, killing 12 people.
After that sharebroker George Buttle purchased the island in 1936, but never developed it further.
He declined offers to sell it to the government, but agreed to turn it into a private scenic reserve in 1953.
The island is now owned by the Buttle Family Trust which is run by his descendants. Tour operators pay the trust a royalty to visit.Source: Read Full Article