News Home » Top Stories » White Island volcano

Around the World

White Island volcano

Fabio Russo 21 December 9, 2019

Police say they do not believe any survivors are left on White Island, according to the latest update on their website.

"No signs of life have been seen at any point," the statement reads. "Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island."

Police added that they are "working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

Earlier police estimated that at least 10 people were still missing on the island.

At first light on Tuesday morning, a New Zealand Defence Force ship will deploy drones and observational equipment to assess the environment and situation, police said in the statement.

"Both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to [be] involved, and a number were from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship," police added.

The volcano on White Island erupted three times on Monday, according to Whakatane District Mayor.
The volcano on White Island erupted three times on Monday, according to Whakatane District Mayor. John Boren/Getty Images

The volcano on White Island, also known as Whakaari, erupted three times on Monday, according to the nearby Whakatane District Mayor Judy Turner.

"We have been advised that the situation on Whakaari / White Island remains extremely volatile,” Turner said.

There have been three eruptions and there is unpredictable ongoing volcanic activity.”

She added that the risk of ash fall reaching New Zealand's east coast remains low but New Zealand's geoscience institute, GNS, continues to monitor the situation.

"At this stage the elevated risk level is contained to Whakaari / White Island," Turner added.

Whakatane is the port town nearest White Island.

Monday's deadly eruption speaks to how unpredictable volcanos can be.

Steven Sherburn, a vulcanologist from GNS Science which monitors volcanic activity in New Zealand, said that there had been "unrest" in the volcano for weeks, but people had continued to visit the island.

"There was nothing particularly unusual about today," he said of the activity on Monday prior to the eruption.

Although the island's alert level had been upgraded to two out of five in recent weeks, that didn't necessarily mean that it would erupt. A volcano could have a level two rating for a long time and not erupt -- but equally, a volcano could have a level one rating and still erupt, he said.

Sherburn noted that, while GeoNet monitored and rated volcanic activity, it didn't have the ability to prevent people from going on the island.

Currently, White Island has a GeoNet rating of three.

Police say it's too dangerous to access White Island right now -- and according to experts, it's not yet clear when it will be safe.

The island remains a no-fly zone, and emergency services are unable to go on the island as there's a risk it could erupt.

Dr. Jessica Johnson, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia in England, said that eruptions could be unpredictable if they involved water.

"There is a chance of another eruption of similar size ... and potentially bigger," she said.

Derek Wyman, a senior lecturer at Sydney University, said the authorities would need to monitor the volcano for around a week to see if the volcanic activity continued, especially as there was no way to predict whether it would erupt again.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arriving in Whakatane, New Zealand.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arriving in Whakatane, New Zealand. Picture: Matt Mckew

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden arrived in Whakatane earlier tonight, meeting with local authorities as they continue carry out search and rescue operations.

Numerous government and emergency agencies are meeting at the Whakatane District Council office, including the Ministry of Civil Defence and St John New Zealand.

If you're just joining us now, here's what you need to know:

  • The eruption: The volcano on White Island, off the coast of the country's North Island, erupted this afternoon.
  • The numbers: Police say fewer than 50 people were on or around the island at the time of the eruption. More than 30 of those are believed to be passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise line. A total of 23 people were rescued from the island in the immediate aftermath of the eruption.
  • Casualties: Five of the 23 evacuees have been confirmed dead. They come from a range of nationalities, but police have not released more identifying information.
  • Rescuers on shore: The search and rescue teams have had to work mostly on shore, as it's still too dangerous to access the island. Police say they have had no communications with anyone on the island since the eruption.
Emergency services at the Whakatane Airport on December 09, 2019.
Emergency services at the Whakatane Airport on December 09, 2019. Picture: Getty Images

It's now after 10 p.m. in Whakatane, the town on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island which is closest to White Island.

Home to around 30,000 people, Whakatane rarely hits headlines, even in New Zealand. It's a quiet beach town, with a large Maori population -- the country's indigenous people. For those wanting to head to White Island, it's often the launch point.

At about 48 kilometers (30 miles) from shore, White Island is visible from Whakatane. Standing on the beach at Whakatane, it's not uncommon to see tendrils of smoke above the island.

After hearing about the eruption on Monday, Bobby Bell, a 35-year-old American who is staying with his girlfriend in Whakatane, came into the town center.

There was smoke coming from the island, but it looked "fairly normal -- some days you see it smoking," he said. He saw a flurry of activity: ambulances, boats, and helicopters flying ahead. "At first, I had heard there were a 100 or so people in jeopardy," he said. "It's crazy to think that it actually happened here."

Bell tried to see what was happening, but part of the waterfront was blocked off by authorities. He said his friend had seen a boat coming to shore, covered in ash.

Local resident Ross Mckenzie, 69, said the island had looked more smoky recently, but the tour groups go out there everyday. He believed today's eruption had taken the tour groups by surprise.

Bobby Bell
Bobby Bell

More than 30 passengers from the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line were believed to have been on the island when the volcano erupted.

In a statement to CNN, the cruise company said it was "devastated" and working with local authorities.

Read the statement:

"We are devastated by today’s events and our hearts go out to all those affected by this tragedy. We are working together with local authorities, and we are providing all the help and care we can to our guests and their families, including offering medical resources and counseling. We are also sending staff members from both our ship and our Sydney and Auckland offices to assist family members however possible. 

Ovation of the Seas will remain in port as long as needed to assist with the situation."

When White Island erupted, there would have been hot steam clouds, poisonous gases, and falling rocks -- in short, chaos for those on the island.

According to Dr. Jessica Johnson, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia in England, poisonous gases would have spilled from the volcano -- so much that people would have been able to taste the chemicals.

The volcano -- which has an acidic lake in its crater -- would have thrown out hot steam clouds, she added.

The eruption would have also created "ballistics" -- or falling rocks.

On top of that, the explosion would have been very loud, creating a "chaotic" and "unpleasant" situation, she said.

Around 50 people were believed to be on or around the island at the time of the blast, according to New Zealand police. A total of 23 people have been rescued from the island -- and of those injured, most are suffering from burns.

Johnson believed that most injuries would likely have been due to the force of the explosion. Burns were likely from the steam blasts, she said.

According to Derek Wyman, a senior lecturer at Sydney University, material would have blasted from the volcano at about 1,000 degrees Celsius. "Having seen an image of how close those people were to the crater, it would have been a catastrophic look," he said. "It would have been an overwhelming site."

Steam emitting from White Island after a volcanic eruption on December 09, 2019 in New Zealand.
Steam emitting from White Island after a volcanic eruption on December 09, 2019 in New Zealand. John Boren/Getty Images

At least 10 people are believed to still be on White Island, where a volcano erupted earlier today, New Zealand police said earlier tonight at a press conference.

Earlier today, they had estimated that fewer than 50 people were on or around the island at the time of the eruption. More than 30 of those are believed to be cruise passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise line.

Since the eruption, 23 people have been evacuated from the island. Five of those have died, and the rest have been transported to hospital, authorities said.

The death toll is likely to rise, police warned earlier today -- but it's difficult to place concrete estimates because they have had no communications with anyone on the island, and rescuers are unable to go onto the island because it's still too dangerous.

So far, limited information has emerged about the victims and the injured. The five who died are from a range of nationalities, and the people on the island are believed to be a mix of locals and tourists, according to authorities.