Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption – an ‘avoidable’ tourist disaster just waiting to happen?

At the best of times, volcanos are destructive beasts that when they erupt, brings devastating death and destruction, sometimes over an extensive area, aren’t they? Well, those of us that are able and sensibly fearful, give them a wide berth, eh?

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to spend some time in Indonesia and indeed also Java island, will know that it is in the Pacific Ring of Fire and hosts 45 active volcanoes, and that off its coast, Krakatoa is one of the world’s most famous volcanoes – it was not worth a risk tourist visit though, eh?

The 1883 major eruption of Krakatoa resulted in over 70% of the island of Krakatoa and its surrounding archipelago being destroyed as it collapsed into a caldera. That eruption was one of the deadliest and most destructive volcanic events in recorded history with explosions so violent that they were heard two thousand miles away in Australia, and some forty thousand deaths are attributed to the eruption and the tsunamis created.

It is still active and erupted just a year ago causing a deadly tsunami affecting some two hundred miles of coastline in Sumatra and Java, with waves up to five meters in height making landfall, resulting in a death toll of some five hundred with fourteen thousand injured.

Similarly, Iceland is a significant volcanic zone with about 130 active and inactive volcanoes, , with some 30 currently active systems, when over the past 500 years, their eruptions have caused a third of the total global lava output.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano, completely covered by a 40sq ml ice cap, is about 75 miles from tourist popular and capital Reykjavik. Experience the summertime days when it will not get dark at night, but basic common sense determines that the volcano is not worth the risk of a visit though, since it has erupted relatively frequently since the last glacial period, most recently in 2010 and although relatively small for volcanic eruptions, its ash plume caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe for several weeks. It’s best to the follow in the footsteps of the locals and their city’s culture, and stick to one of Reykjavík’s numerous outdoor warm swimming pools, with their hot tubs and steam baths, all run on geothermal water from boreholes

Nevertheless, there are always idiot risk takers and their irresponsible employers, aren’t there, like James May who drove a car up that volcano for the Top Gear television show and reached the summit mere hours before the eruption began?

However, apart from their destructive nature, many millions of people today live uncomfortably close to volcanoes as they rely on volcanoes for their everyday survival. That’s because of a volcano’s geothermal energy, which nowadays can be harnessed by using the Earth’s magma heated underground steam, while they also attract millions of visitors around the world every year, plus their associated hot springs and geysers which also can bring in even more lucrative tourists. Steam can be used to drive turbines in power stations to produce electricity for domestic and industrial use – particularly, countries such as Iceland and New Zealand use this method of generating electricity.

Even from the earliest times though, the areas around volcanoes have been populated because they often contain some of the most mineral rich soils in the world, so weathers to form nutrient rich soil, ideal for farming as that can be cultivated to produce healthy crops and rich harvests – also the cooled lava from deep within the earth contains minable minerals such as gold, silver, diamonds, copper and zinc, hence often mining towns develop around volcanoes.

Last Monday, the New Zealand Whakaari or White Island volcano erupted, not unexpectantly it has to be said as there was a warning of unusual activity at the volcano a day or so ahead of it, which then released steam and volcanic gasses, thereby causing an explosion, launching rock and ash into the air with dreadful consequences.

Forty-seven tour participants or staff from half a dozen counties were on the island, some even walking in the rim of the crater, when the first large eruption occurred, a second eruption closely followed the first. Local helicopter operators saved many lives, but these events resulted in at least eight fatalities, eight believed missing and thirty-three injured, most receiving severe burns, many with burns on up to 90% of their bodies so may not survive.

Three days later, a snatch and grab, body recovery attempt was underway and finish last night, which deployed as few people as possible – those involved, three two-person teams, are believed to have been SAS members and they spent as little time as possible near the crater and recovered six bodies. There were numerous risks involved in that operation as there was a 50% – 60% chance that the unpredictable volcano could erupt again.

This Whakaari volcano is always active and the alert level had been raised last month, indicating heightened volcanic unrest, but nevertheless an eruption can occur at any volcanic alert level. It is known as the most active volcano, has been in a nearly continuous stage of releasing volcanic gas for 250 years, and indeed was in continuous eruption for 25 years before 2000 – the world’s longest historic eruption episode. It erupted 7 years ago and again just 3 years ago, so any sober village idiot wouldn’t have ventured near it this week, let alone climb into it, surely?

It is perfectly understandable that adventurist, inquisitive tourists would want the unique experience of personally scenically seeing an active volcano first hand, but certainly from a reasonably safe vantage point like a helicopter or aircraft positioned in, or flying at, a safe distance, wouldn’t you say?

Considering the predictable resulting absolute heartache of victims’ families, it beggars belief, not only that this type of crass stupidity tourism is allowed in New Zealand, but more so that it seems to be encouraged and sponsored by the State, simply to rake-in money from ‘risk uninformed’ tourists.

In Britain, when a member of the public is facing any kind of risk situation, like say a medical procedure, they have to be specifically advised by a professional of all potential risks and sign to agree to accept them, don’t they?

It is difficult to believe that those Whakaari tourists on Monday actually comprehended the danger they were putting themselves in, surely? It is much more likely that the tourist companies kept that high risk to themselves to protect their business, though of course the three or so guides involved on that day must have known the risks, particularly one that had been doing tours for the past 15 years. Is it feasible that the parents realised or were told about the dangers when they took their 13 and 16-year-old children sightseeing an active volcano, as a treat? They all perished.

When people join a guided tour to an access restricted place like the privately-owned White Island/Whakaari volcano, they will assume that it is a safe place, since it was run by a specifically registered and authorised tour operator, won’t they? After all it was a popular destination for day tours, was promoted as a living, breathing, geological giant and the world’s most accessible active marine volcano, but they were not truthfully about it being a potential death trap.

There is a significant problem when it comes to something like a dangerous tourist activity like that offered at Whakaari, which is that the operators and site owner making their fortunes, are not in the least accountable for putting their customers a high risk, are they?

No, and that is because of the New Zealand government’s, non-opt-out-of, reckless, accident compensation scheme that covers the cost of all treatment for injuries, but bars victims from taking legal action, or suing for negligence against operators or anyone else. That means that no one bears responsible for the safety of tourists on Whakaari or the like, and that the astounding brainlessness and irresponsibility of those who for years have encouraged unprotected and unsuspecting men, women, and children to explore a dangerously active volcano because it’s easy to reach and highly accessible right up to its crater, and that allows the benefiters to do so with total unaccountability or regard for human life, doesn’t it?

Yes, and that has underwritten and enabled the cash-cow adventure tourism industry, which has resulted in its massive expansion in the country that couldn’t have happened elsewhere – which would be fine only if those joining-in are made fully aware of the level of risk involved


[New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told her parliament on Tuesday that there were questions that must be asked about the eruption, and those questions must be answered, and that “our hearts go out to the families of those who are injured, missing or deceased”, but don’t hold your breath about the announced Police criminal investigation into the tragedy, will you?]

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