An update on Whakaari/White Island

Published: Thu Jun 27 2019 2:40 PM
Updated: Thu Jun 27 2019 2:00 PM

On 26 June the Volcanic Alert Level of Whakaari/White Island moved from level 1 to 2. Here, we answer some questions about this change and what we currently know about Whakaari.

Why did we increase the Volcanic Alert Level from 1 to 2?

The recent earthquake swarm near the volcano, starting at the end of May, prompted us to increase our regular monitoring activities at Whakaari/White Island. On a gas flight on 26 June we measured an increase in sulphur dioxide gas levels, an indicator of volcanic unrest. The observed gas level was the highest since 2013 and three times higher than was recorded in May 2019, which represents a significant change at the volcano. Our volcano experts increased the Volcanic Alert Level to 2 to reflect this change.

What is a Volcanic Alert Level?

Volcanic Alert Levels in New Zealand

Volcanic Alert Levels in New Zealand

A Volcanic Alert Level (VAL) is a scale from 0 – 5 that represents the official status of the volcano. We’ve been using Volcanic Alert Levels since 1994. Most New Zealand volcanoes are currently at VAL 0, meaning there is no volcanic unrest. Ruapehu is at VAL 1 meaning minor volcanic unrest, and Whakaari/White Island is now at VAL 2 meaning heightened volcanic unrest with potential for eruption hazards.

Watch this video on Volcanic Alert Levels in New Zealand to understand more.

What does this mean for the public?

A change in the VAL is a good time to think about what hazards there are at the volcano and if there is a chance you could be exposed to them. If you’re planning to visit Whakaari/White Island there is information available about the volcano and the hazards on our websites here and here. Have a read of any updates we put on our website, information from local Bay of Plenty Civil Defence, and if you are planning a trip to the volcano, follow the instructions of the tour operator.

The most likely hazard from an eruption at Whakaari/White Island for people not at the volcano is ashfall. This is only a minor hazard for mainland New Zealand as ash from eruptions here normally travels east out to sea.

If you’d like to know more about what to do before or during a volcanic eruption in New Zealand, you can follow Civil Defence’s get thru guide here. An eruption at White Island would likely not have any impacts on mainland New Zealand.

Does this mean Whakaari/White Island is going to erupt?

An increase in VAL does not mean that there is certainty that the volcano will erupt. It means that some of the indicators of heightened volcanic unrest have changed. We think it is more likely that it could erupt based on what we know about previous eruptions there and the normal levels of volcanic chemistry, gases, and volcanic tremor.

When did it last erupt?

Whakaari/White Island is currently our most active volcano in New Zealand and it had a moderate eruption in 2016. Read more about that 2016 eruption here.

What does volcanic unrest mean?

It’s the word we use for ‘more activity at the volcano’. Heightened unrest means that we have observed more activity at the volcano than in recent months or years. The volcano is not currently erupting.

What monitoring are we currently doing of the volcano?

We regularly monitor Whakaari/White Island to understand what is happening there using many techniques. The three primary ones are seismic activity, water and gas chemistry, and ground deformation. This page explains in more detail how we monitor volcanoes in New Zealand.

Our team will be heading out again soon to conduct another gas flight.

Our volcano team and the National Geohazards Monitoring Centre continues to closely monitor Whakaari/White Island for further signs of activity.

Media enquiries - media@gns.cri.nz or 021 574 541

Science contact - Volcanologist Brad Scott 07 374 8211