New Zealand Investigating Volcanic Accident

Privately owned White Island volcano produces lethal steam instead of magma

After Monday’s fatal volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island, police announced a criminal investigation.

Police said 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, and were divided between two general groups, one near the rim of the volcano, and another able to be evacuated. Reconaissance efforts showed no signs of life in the aftermath of the eruption, which killed 5, and left 8 missing. Of the injured, 27 suffered more than 70% of their bodies burned badly, with an increasing mortality rate expected.

White Island is one of several volcanoes in New Zealand that can produce sudden explosive eruptions at any time. In this case, magma is shallow, and the heat and gases affect surface and groundwater to form vigorous hydrothermal systems.

In these, water is trapped in pores of rocks in a super-heated state. Any external process, such as an earthquake, gas input from below, or even a change in the lake water level can tip this delicate balance and release the pressure on the hot and trapped water.

The resulting steam-driven eruption, also called a hydrothermal or phreatic eruption, can happen suddenly and with little to no warning.

Three Auckland brothers own the island, who have stated they are “shocked,” “devastated,” and “heartbroken.” Tour operators paid the family royalties to visit the island.

Sources: Reuters, the Guardian, and