11 comments on “The White Island Phreatic Eruption of Dec 9, 2019

  1. My wife and I visited Etna in 2001 and watched the volcanic bombs being blasted from the new vent and saw how the black Aa lava becomes red and alive at dusk. We were at White Island in spring 2016 and stood at the vent rim and peered in – – In 2017 we experienced a lava break out at kalapana Hawaii and took the boat to watch the lava pour into the sea. Just months later a boat had bombs thrown onto the deck and some were injured. Also guide and his party walking on the flows were over come by fumes when it rained and the wind changed he got the party out but sadly died him self we feel very lucky. Our thoughts are very much with those who lost their lives and were injured. I am a geologist –


    • It is a tough business, visiting things that occasionally remind us who or what are in charge. But it is all personal choices on how much risk to accept. Such choices backfire horribly from time to time. OTOH, the visitors are rewarded with access to spectacular venues which God will mostly allow us to depart unscathed. Prayers for the deceased and their families. Still, those who chose to go mostly knew what they were getting into and chose to do it anyway, the very definition of personal choice and freedom. Best to you and yours and thank you for your comment. Cheers –


  2. Hi A. good write-up in my opinion about a tricky topic. I understand Graniya totally too, who was upset about the commercial aspect of volcano tourism knowing the elevated risk. I understand and respect that. The only thing I can say in return is that I have no issue with volcano tourism provided people know the risks and can weigh them up for themselves. You would still have to be pretty unlucky to get hit by a phreatic explosion, even on White Island, but risk is everywhere. I think people should be able to choose for themselves. As for the operators, they also put their lives on the line, and due to repeated tours that risk is more than an entire degree of magnitude higher than the risks posed to tourists. All I have heard from them is that they love and respect the place and know what they are doing. Forgotten I had said that about banning children, but in retrospect I stand by it. /sorry, didn’t realise I had to log into WordPress again. Bruce


    • Thank you for your comment. My background is aerospace. I understand risk, especially the knowing what you are getting into part of risk. The people who are generally in the risk-tourism, extreme sports, other forms of higher than normal risk endeavors or pursuits, usually have significant respect (and love) for the thing they are doing and introducing others to. We are on the verge of seeing this take place with commercial space travel. There will be accidents and people who won’t return, and we all know it. Doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. The suborbital guys are pretty close to starting commercial flights. SpaceX has been talking about a circumlunar commercial flight in the next year or two (Apollo 13 trajectory) for a few years. These are not low risk endeavors and should be celebrated. Best to you and yours. Cheers –


  3. Very good post, agimarc! I agree with all you say, there is only one thing you entirely forgot to mention: Money! The formula

    Admit heightened risk at a certain time = less tourists = loss of profit

    is as true for volcano tour operators as for any other business in the world. Where Money is concerned love, experience, courage, foresight, caution or reason doesn’t count.

    That is what a regulation is needed for – the commercial aspect of it. Not for the risk every visitor signs up for. The risk will not go away, but can be minimized to a reasonable level.

    As of November 30, 13 parties are facing criminal charges in connection with the eruption. Among them, sadly, the GNS Science. This is so wrong in my view: they did raise the alert level to Unrest a few days earlier. The responsibility lies solely by the tour operator, who has eyes to see what there is to see on the seismogram. He is not asked to expertly interpret the seismogram. He is asked to make a reasonable decision to protect people as good as he can.

    Here is what Shane Cronin had to say about it last week, though:

    Also this about a new early warning system, from July:


    • Thanks, Granyia for your comments. I think we mostly agree, with whatever money is in play applied on either (both?) side(s) based on risk is implied, accepted, asked to be accepted, any, or all 3. In this, I think the ticket price, whatever it is, defines what people on either side of the equation are willing to do. If things are too exciting or risky, there is no ticket price that will be high enough or low enough. The alternate also holds true . Of course, once something awful happens, 20-20 Hindsight kicks in as does the finger pointing and official placing of the blame which changes the game completely. As always, what is reasonable is in the eyes of the beholder, customer, vendor, insurer or regulator. Governments and insurers will tend to minimize risk, tour operators will end up being driven more by the marketplace and their customers. And if they are either predatory or reckless, they will be quickly put out of business by the regulators / insurers.

      Sad at GNS science being targeted, as it is remindful of the Italian scientists targeted in lawsuits for not correctly predicting an earthquake.

      Agree with your first link that this event will in the long run improve eruption forecasting. Skeptical that it will do so any time soon, but what do I know? Phreatic eruptions like this one burst out of the background noise quickly and violently and I am not yet convinced that anyone has a handle on that as yet. OTOH, every single event is a data gathering and data analysis gold mine, so over time, I do expect forecasting to improve. Think we get from here to there via an iterative process over an extended period of time rather than a bit flip. And that means we have some number of unpleasant future events.

      Best to you and yours. Cheers –


  4. new article in the Guardian today:
    It is not very clearly written because it suggests the helicopter pilot is getting fined for saving people on an unauthorised rescue mission but as I understand it, he is getting fined for not running his business safely.
    I can understand the charges against tour operators (though I don’t agree with them) but charging Geonet is an outrage. It is paramount that scientists can do their job without being subject to the forces of public opinion and liability for the decisions of others. I hope the court upholds this view.


    • Just read Shane Cronin’s piece on it. This is an interesting take on it but, unless I am reading him wrong, he also thinks the science agencies should not be held culpable by the courts. I don’t know where he got the stat that there was a 10% chance of an eruption in 48 hours. That is the first I have heard of it and sure, a risk of that level should lead to an immediate no-go zone. No argument.

      As for the issue of culpability, we discussed that once with regard to the earthquake in Aquila, as you point out, and I guess the same holds true here. The best path forward is open, clear and honest communication. The public and most of all, the decision makers (tour operators, tourists in this case) should have the best information available to make an informed decision. Government agencies (including science agencies like Geonet) should see public outreach as an equally important part of their job as doing the basic research. This means making sure people understand both the limits of knowledge as well as having the latest information quickly available. A good example are the tsunami warning systems and public outreach after the Tohoku tsunami.

      As for businesses engaged in adventure tourism, I do appreciate that money can compromise things, but none of the guys I know doing this kind of thing want anyone hurt. Not only would that be really bad for business, it is also just part of their professionalism. Reminds of Rob Hall, a Kiwi guide who died on Mt. Everest because he wouldn’t leave his client. So, no, I don’t think these guys are essentially corrupt or pursuing the sole motive of making a buck. They are basically just doing, what they love doing and letting others share in it.

      So, I guess what I am saying is two things.
      1. Informed knowledgeable individuals should be free to do what they choose to do (as long as they don’t put others at risk in the process)
      2. Government agencies should be given the resources to ensure the best information is available to facilitate decisions by the individuals referred to in 1.


    • If the courts allow this, they’re gonna end up with nobody willing to predict, much less monitor anything and nobody willing to do a rescue or recovery effort. The road to a very hot place continues to be paved with good intentions.

      Cold and snowy up here, but at least it’s dark. Happily, days start getting longer in a week. Yay!. Best wishes to one and all for the very merriest Christmas (or whatever other holiday celebration is applicable) for you and yours. Cheers –


  5. Best wishes to you two, A. and also to Graniya. Hope all of you have a great Xmas and let’s all hope for a better year in 2021.
    Really love your articles and appreciate the amount of work that goes into this place. It is a real gem.


    • As always, many thanks for your kind words. We are trying however poorly to describe what is going on and how it came to be. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Still, the process continues to be sufficiently interesting to continue doing it. Best to you and yours. Cheers –


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