Whakaari/White Island may have erupted again, but no one knows for sure

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By Dan Sheridan from

View of Whakaari / White Island from a monitoring flight on August 31, 2022.

View of Whakaari / White Island from a monitoring flight on August 31, 2022.
Photo: GNS

There may have been an eruption on Whakaari/White Island recently, but no one knows for sure.

Scientists cannot confirm this due to faulty monitoring equipment on the volcano off the coast of the Bay of Plenty.

Large plumes of white steam, reaching 600 meters above the island, could be seen from as far as the Pāpāmoa Hills this weekend, raising the question of whether an eruption had occurred.

However, a lack of real-time data has prevented GeoNet from providing a definitive answer due to an island seismic system that is struggling with issues that cannot be resolved remotely.

While this sounds academic, it isn’t. It means that GeoNet cannot raise the volcanic alert level, indicating whether a larger eruption is imminent.

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An eruption on December 9, 2019, claimed the lives of 22 people and injured another 25 – most of whom were tourists. Since then, access to the island has been strictly restricted. The volcano is located 48 km off the coast of Whakatane.

GNS Science volcanologist Steve Sherburn said the most likely explanation for the ash emission and sulfur dioxide plume, visible Sept. 18, was a “small batch of magma moving toward the shallows of the volcano.”

“We are working hard on a plan to safely return to Whakaari to perform critical maintenance to restore real-time monitoring,” Sherburn said.

“The recent loss of access to continuous data means we are in fact unable to distinguish in near real time between minor volcanic unrest and moderate to increased unrest,” he said.

“As a result, the volcanic alert level for Whakaari/White Island was raised to level two on Sept. 7 to reflect the increased degree of uncertainty in our interpretation due to the current lack of real-time data, not as an indication of a noted increase.” of volcanic activity.”

Sherburn said he wasn’t sure why the seismic station’s data was so intermittent.

Monday it started working again [September 19]but we don’t know if it will continue to work for the next few days,” he said.

“Until our network is restored, we will conduct more regular manual monitoring to detect changes at the volcano.

“This will include more observation and gas measurement flights weather permitting, and improved monitoring of available webcam images. We are using satellite data to detect deformation changes at the volcano and to detect large volcanic gas signals.”

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If an eruption could be confirmed, GeoNet said it would raise the volcanic alert level.

“Volcanic warning level two, which Whakaari is now set to, is the highest warning level for non-eruption,” Sherburn said.

“We still occasionally have access to webcam images of the island, which provides a measure of visual surveillance between our flights,” he said.

“We are also working closely with MetService and their rain radar can see an eruption ash column, provided it is at least 2400 meters high.”

It was common to see large steam and gas plumes off Whakaari/White Island when weather conditions allowed, Sherburn said.

“But eruptions can happen with little or no warning, whether we have real-time data from the island or not,” he said.

This story was originally published on Stuff’s website.

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