One person is known to have died and twenty seven more are missing, following an eruption on White Island, or Te Puia o Whakaari, an island volcano in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, 48 km from the mainland of North Island. The island is uninhabited, but was being visited by several groups of tourists at the time of the eruption, with the largest group coming from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. The exact number of people on the island at the time of the eruption is unclear, but it is thought to have been less than 50, with 23 people having been evacuated by tour operators, seven of whom are described as being in a serious condition. The island is currently thought to be too dangerous for emergency services to approach, and it is unclear if there are likely to be any more survivors. The eruption occurred slightly after 2.10 pm local time (slightly after 1.10 am GMT) on Monday 9 December 2019, producing an ash column that rose 4 km above the island.
Eruption on White Island, New Zealand, on 9 December 2019. Michael Schade/The Guardian.
White Island is the tip of a submerged stratovolcano (cone-shaped volcano made up of successive layers of ash and lava), reaching 321 m above sea-level and measuring 2 × 2.4 km. The volcano is highly active, having erupted numerous times since written records began in 1826, and with more eruptions mentioned in Maori oral traditions (the name Te Puia o Whakaari means 'The Dramatic Volcano'. The island is uninhabited, due to its small size and the presence of an active volcano (an attempt to mine sulphur on the island ended in disaster in 1914, when an eruption triggered a lahar - sudden flow of water, mud and ash - that killed all ten miners).
The approximate location of White Island. Google Maps.
The volcanoes of New Zealand are fed by the subduction of the Pacific Plate beneath the Islands, which sit on the eastern margins of the Australian Plate. As the Pacific Plate sinks into the Earth, a combination of heat from the friction and from the planet's interior partially melts the plate, and some of the melted material rises through the overlying Australian Plate, supplying the volcanoes of New Zealand with liquid magma.
The subduction zone beneath New Zealand, and how if fuels Earthquakes and volcanos. Te Ara.
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