‘Explore an active volcano!’ the brochures advertising
trips to Whakaari / White Island said – but should tourists
have been allowed there in the first place, and should they
be allowed back?
Ohio’s Denison University associate professor of geosciences
Erik Klemetti wrote an article titled How dangerous is
visiting New Zealand’s White Island?
In it, he
warned that even a small steam-driven eruption could have
catastrophic and potentially deadly consequences – if a tour
group was there at the time.
“I can see why people are
drawn to it, I was always struck by the fact that volcanoes
can be somewhat unpredictable, even with the best
Whakaari erupted on 9 December last year, Klemetti was
at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San
“When I did see the headline come across on
Twitter … I had this feeling of like, this is exactly the
sort of thing that I hoped wouldn’t happen, that ended up
When Klemetti was offered the opportunity
to go to the island, back in 2009, he said no.
level of risk management there, the amount of nervousness I
had about doing a trip like that was high enough that I
thought, it’s not worth probably doing, although people who
I know who are volcanologists who have done it, say it’s
remarkable and I’m sure it would have been.
just could not bring myself to do it.”
Auckland volcanologist Shane Cronin suspects people began to
woefully underestimate the risk posed by
“Primarily because the numbers of people
visiting the island, that’s increased hugely,” Cronin
Once tours were few and far between – and even
stopped during winter.
“These days what was going on:
there were people coming off cruise ships, so there were
multiple trips per day, people were coming in with
helicopters, with boat tours.
“The sheer number of
people coming to the island – not only just at once, but
continuously – meant that our exposure to the risk was much,
Three years prior to last December’s
eruption, there was an eruption of a similar size at
Whakaari – except it happened at night.
“We had a
series of these near-misses and we were pretty well aware of
that at a national level, that a lot of our tourist
volcanoes have this sort of sudden onset risk, and it was
ranked as one of the highest likelihood events, in terms of
a mass casualty event,” Cronin said.
Klemetti said he
would be hesitant to open the volcano up to the same level
of tourism again.
“Maybe you could have tours that
tour around the island, to see it from a boat, but that
again, you’d need to know what the level of hazard and level
of activity the island might be showing at the
“But having people with boots on the ground on
the island on a regular basis just feels like it’s just
asking for something like this to happen
Cronin was not convinced either.
think it’s a great place to visit when things are in a calm
level, I’m just not sure we are in a position to be able to
provide such a clear sense of security about
When it was announced last week charges
were being laid over the disaster, WorkSafe chief
executive Phil Parkes would not say whether tourists should
be allowed to return to Whakaari because that was outside
the scope of the investigation.
“Our investigation was
focused on the obligations of the individuals and companies
who were taking people to the island, whether they met their
health and safety obligations, any discussions around the
future of the island were outside the scope of the
investigation,” he had said.
The Ministry of Business,
Innovation and Employment is reviewing the adventure
activities regulations – looking specifically at activities
that revolve around natural hazards.
The Department of
Internal Affairs is also working with other government
agencies about future access to Whakaari / White