2019 Whakaari/White Island eruption

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
LocationWhakaari/White Island, Bay 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
ImpactFatalities: 8
Missing: at least 8
Serious injuries: 28 (23 critical)
Minor injuries: 3

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).[1] There were 47 people on the island at the time. Eight people are confirmed dead, eight are missing and presumed dead, whilst a further 28 suffered serious injuries, 23 of which are critical.[2] The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity in the area continues to hamper recovery efforts.[3]

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.[4]


Whakaari/White Island in 2013

Whakaari/White Island[a] is an active andesite stratovolcano, situated off the north-northeast coast of the North Island of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty. The volcano has erupted multiple times in recent history, including several times in the 1980s.[5] A major eruption formed a new crater in 2000, and small eruptions occurred in 2012,[6] 2013,[7] and 2016.[8]

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,[8] and on 18 November, the volcano was rated at Volcanic Alert level 2, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest", due to increased activity.[9]

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.[10] Seismic activity can be a contributing factor to hydrothermic eruptions, due to a reduction of pressure within the geothermal system.[11][12]

The island is monitored by GNS Science with three web cameras, one seismograph, and a microphone to detect volcanic explosions. The organisations also make regular visits to test water, gas and soil, and to survey surface deformation.[13]

Tourists regularly visit the island, primarily through White Island Tours. The organisation posted a statement on their web page before the eruption, which stated:[14]

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).[1] The ash plume rose to 3.7 kilometres (12,000 ft) into the air.[15]

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.[16] Some of the people on the island at the time of the eruption were passengers on the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, which was on a 12-day voyage around New Zealand and had berthed at Tauranga that morning.[17]

Some visitors were waiting for vessels to take them off the island at the time of the eruption. Tour operators and these vessels rescued about 23 people from the island before it was officially declared unsafe.[18] A passenger on one of the boats stated that his vessel attempted to first outrun the smoke and the eruption before many on the vessel noticed a group 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.[19]

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.[20]

Three commercial helicopter pilots conducted rescue missions to the island in their helicopters, bringing back twelve survivors (five, five, and two, respectively). They observed several dead people in the area but had to concentrate on bringing back the survivors.[21]


At 18:35 on 9 December, press were told there was one confirmed fatality, with more likely to be dead as several were missing,[8] while many were injured, seven critically.[15] 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.[1][22] Later the same day, officials declared that forty-seven people were on the island at the moment of the eruption: five were killed, thirty-four injured and rescued, while eight are missing and presumed dead.[23] Three other people died in hospital the next days, bringing the death toll to eight.[24][25]

The forty-seven people on the island at the moment of the eruption were identified as twenty-five Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and one Malaysian.[26] 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.[20]

Many of the injured 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.[27] 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.[28] On 11 December, it was reported that New Zealand had ordered 1,200,000 square centimetres (190,000 sq in) of skin from the United States and Australia to treat patients following the eruption, some of whom have burns to 90–95% of their body.[29][30]

Starting from the night of 11 December, injured Australians were airlifted to Australia to receive treatments in hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. Three RAAF planes, a C-130 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 are expected to be airlifted to Australia.[31]


Fatalities by citizenship
Citizenship Deaths
 Australia 6
 Malaysia 1
 New Zealand 1
Total: 8

In a press conference at about 8:00 pm on 9 December, New Zealand Police stated that five people were confirmed dead, eight more were confirmed missing and presumed dead, and thirty-four were injured, seven critically.[32] On the evening of 10 December, New Zealand Police confirmed the death toll had risen to six as one of the injured died in hospital.[33] Two other people died in hospital on 11 December 2019, bringing the death toll to eight.[34]

Of the eight fatalities, one was a young local man who worked as a guide for White Island Tours,[1] one a Malaysian tourist,[35] and six were Australian tourists: a mother and daughter, a 33-year-old man who died in hospital, a man whose stepdaughter is still among those missing, and two brothers whose parents are also still missing.[36][37][38][39][40]


As of 11 December 2019, official reports in New Zealand state that 8 people of different nationalities remain missing; however, Australia has stated that 11 of its citizens alone remain unaccounted for.[41][42]


There have been three subsequent eruptions since the major eruption on 9 December.[22] 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.[13] Since the incident, the White Island Tours website has been edited to carry information about the emergency situation.[14]

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.[43][44]

All those injured and killed in the eruption, regardless of nationality, would be covered by ACC, New Zealand's no-fault accident compensation scheme.[45]


Ray Cas, a professor emeritus from Monash University, and past president of the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior,[46] 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.[47][18]

New Zealand Police launched an investigation into the disaster, in conjunction with WorkSafe New Zealand.[48] Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that "the scale of this tragedy is devastating".[1] On 10 December, Ardern met emergency services personnel who responded to the incident.[49]

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.[50] The Australian Parliament House also lowered its flags at half-mast.[51]

See also


  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.


  1. ^ a b c d e "Live: White Island erupting: Plumes of smoke, reports of multiple injuries in Bay of Plenty". New Zealand Herald. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  2. ^ "White Island volcano: Death toll rises to eight, police say". BBC News. 11 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  3. ^ "New volcanic activity slows NZ recovery efforts". BBC News. 11 December 2019.
  4. ^ "The science of the White Island eruption: A catastrophic burst of steam". Stuff. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  5. ^ "Whakaari/White Island eruption: What you need to know". Spinoff. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  6. ^ "Visitors warned off erupting volcano". Stuff. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  7. ^ "Civil Defence monitor White Island volcano". New Zealand Herald. 20 August 2013.
  8. ^ a b c "One dead as White Island volcano erupts in the Bay of Plenty". Stuff. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  9. ^ "Volcanic alert level rises on White Island". Radio New Zealand. 18 November 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  10. ^ "A magnitude 5.9 earthquake occurred 50 km north-west of Te Kaha, New Zealand on Sun Nov 24 2019 5:34 AM. The quake was 115 kilometres deep and the shaking was moderate close to the quake". www.geonet.org.nz. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  11. ^ "Types of Volcanoes & Eruptions / Volcanoes / Science Topics / Learning / Home - GNS Science". www.gns.cri.nz. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  12. ^ "Hydrothermal Eruption / Volcanic Hazards / Volcanoes / Science Topics / Learning / Home - GNS Science". www.gns.cri.nz. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  13. ^ a b Huffadine, Leith (9 December 2019). "Whakaari / White Island eruption: What scientists say about the volcano". Radio New Zealand. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  14. ^ a b Sabin, Brook (10 December 2019). "Whakaari/White Island eruption: Why were tours still operating?". Stuff. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  15. ^ a b "Whakaari / White Island has erupted – here's what you need to know". Radio New Zealand. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  16. ^ "People 'unaccounted for' after volcano erupts in NZ". BBC News. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  17. ^ "White Island erupting: Five dead and the toll expected to rise". New Zealand Herald. 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  18. ^ a b Sharman, Jon (9 December 2019). "No survivors on New Zealand island after volcano suddenly erupts, police say". The Independent. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  19. ^ Graham-McLay, Charlotte (9 December 2019). "How tourists became first-aiders on seas off White Island volcano". The Guardian. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  20. ^ a b Wade, Amelia (9 December 2019). "White Island eruption: First responder tells of horror 'everyone was horrifically burnt'". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  21. ^ D'Antal, Stephen (10 December 2019). "New Zealand helicopter pilot describes horror of volcano rescue". The Guardian.
  22. ^ a b Carroll, Melanie; Earley, Melanie; Clent, Danielle (10 December 2019). "White Island eruption live: No signs of life, unlikely survivors are left, police say". Stuff. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  23. ^ "Five dead, eight missing in New Zealand eruption". 9 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  24. ^ "White Island eruption: Sixth person confirmed dead". NZ Herald. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  25. ^ "New Zealand volcano death toll rises to eight". BBC News. 11 December 2019.
  26. ^ "NZ volcano rescuer tells of 'Chernobyl'-like scene". BBC News. 10 December 2019.
  27. ^ "Whakaari/White Island: 'Fantastic team work' in treating severely injured patients". Stuff. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  28. ^ "Whakaari / White Island eruption: NZ's burns units at capacity". RNZ. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  29. ^ Cubertson, Alix (11 December 2019). "New Zealand orders 1.2 million sq cm of skin from US to treat volcano patients". Sky News. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  30. ^ "Victims' skin needs 'unprecedented'". Otago Daily Times. 12 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  31. ^ "NZ volcano eruption survivors returned to Sydney, Melbourne as PM flags 'worse news'". Nine News. 12 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  32. ^ "Live: Whakaari / White Island eruption - day 2". Radio New Zealand. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  33. ^ "White Island eruption: Sixth person confirmed dead". NZ Herald. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  34. ^ "New Zealand volcano death toll rises to eight". BBC News. 11 December 2019.
  35. ^ "One Malaysian dead in New Zealand volcano eruption". Channel News Asia. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  36. ^ "White Island eruption: Two brothers named as victims". 11 December 2019. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  37. ^ "New Zealand volcano: What we know about those affected". BBC News. 11 December 2019. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  38. ^ Cowie, Paul Sakkal, Tom (11 December 2019). "New Zealand volcano updates: Second White Island eruption likely, Julie and Jessica Richards, Gavin Dallow identified as Australian victims". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  39. ^ Barrowclough, Anne; Caisley, Olivia (9 December 2019). "Three Aussies believed among dead". The Australian. Retrieved 9 December 2019.
  40. ^ "New Zealand volcano: Details emerge of the people hit by the eruption". BBC News. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  41. ^ "Tremors at New Zealand volcano island hinder recovery". rte. 11 December 2019. Cite journal requires |journal=
  42. ^ White Island volcano: New volcanic activity hampers recovery efforts>
  43. ^ reporters, Staff (10 December 2019). "White Island eruption: Attempt to recover bodies today, families' agonising wait for news of missing". New Zealand Herald.
  44. ^ "Whakaari/White Island: Crying and waving as Ovation of the Seas cruise departs Tauranga". Stuff. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  45. ^ Weedon, Alan (12 December 2019). "'A social contract': In New Zealand, you can be compensated for disasters even if you're not a citizen". ABC News. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  46. ^ "Ray Cas". The Conversation. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  47. ^ Mannix, Liam (10 December 2019). "White Island was 'a disaster waiting to happen': Vulcanologist". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  48. ^ "New Zealand volcano eruption on White Island leaves three Australians believed dead, eight more still missing". ABC News. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  49. ^ "White Island eruption: 'How good is Ardern' - World praises PM for disaster response". New Zealand Herald. 10 December 2019. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  50. ^ Peatling, Stephanie (9 December 2019). "'This is a very hard day': Prime Minister Scott Morrison fears Australians among dead in NZ eruption". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 10 December 2019.
  51. ^ Sakkal, Paul; Ilanbey, Sumeyya; Grace, Robyn (10 December 2019). "New Zealand updates: White Island volcano eruption leaves multiple dead, critically injured". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 10 December 2019.

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