Whakaari / White Island is an active andesite stratovolcano, situated 48 km (30 mi) from the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, in the Bay of Plenty. It is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and has been built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. The nearest mainland towns are Whakatane and Tauranga. White Island has been in a nearly continuous stage of smoking at least since it was ‚discovered‘ by James Cook in 1769.
The island is roughly circular, about 2 km (1.2 mi) in diameter, and rises to a height of 321 m (1,053 ft) above sea level. However this is only the peak of a much larger submarine mountain, which rises up to 1,600 m (5,249 ft) above the nearby seafloor. Sulfur mining was attempted but was abandoned in 1914 after a lahar killed all 10 workers. The main activities on the island now are guided tours and scientific research.
Whakaari’s eruptions have produced both lava flows and explosive eruptions of ash. It is New Zealand’s most well-known active marine volcano, attracting scientists and volcanologists worldwide as well as many tourists. It is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
Eruption plume stretching northeastwards from White Island, June 2000
Volcanologists from the GeoNet Project continually monitor the volcano’s activity via surveillance cameras. Survey pegs, magnetometers and seismograph equipment for early earthquake warnings via radio have also been installed on the crater walls. The island is usually on an alert level rating of 1 or 2 on a scale of 0 to 5. This volcano is monitored by the Deep Earth Carbon Degassing Project. At most times the volcanic activity is limited to steaming fumaroles and boiling mud. In March 2000, three small vents appeared in the main crater and began belching ash which covered the island in fine grey powder. An eruption on 27 July 2000 blanketed the island with mud and scoria and a new crater appeared. Major eruptions in 1981–83 altered much of the island’s landscape and decimated the extensive pōhutukawa forest. The large crater created at that time now contains a lake, whose level varies substantially. Between July and August 2012 White Island showed signs of increased activity with lake and gas levels rising from inside the crater. On 5 August 2012 a minor eruption occurred, sending ash into the air. More eruptions have followed since.
Continued volcanic activity and tremors on 25 January 2013 suggested another eruption was imminent. A small eruption occurred on 20 August 2013 at 10.23am, lasting for 10 minutes and producing mostly steam. According to The New Zealand Herald newspaper, „Civil Defence will monitor White Island (Whakari) following a small eruption which could be part of a sequence leading to a bigger event.“
The full Māori name for the island is ‚Te Puia o Whakaari‘, meaning ‚The Dramatic Volcano.‘ It was named ‚White Island‘ by Captain Cook on 1 October 1769 because it always appeared to be in a cloud of white steam. Although Cook went close to the island he failed to notice that it was a volcano. Its official name is Whakaari/White Island although it is best known as White Island.
Attempts were made in the mid-1880s, 1898–1901 and 1913–1914 to mine sulfur from White Island, with the island at first being owned by John Wilson. The mining came to a halt in September 1914, when part of the western crater rim collapsed, creating a lahar which killed all 10 workers. They disappeared without trace, and only a camp cat survived. It was found some days afterwards by the resupply ship, and dubbed „Peter the Great“. Some years later in 1923, mining was again attempted, but learning from the 1914 disaster, the miners built their huts on a flat part of the island near a gannet colony. Each day they would lower their boat into the sea from a gantry, and row around to the mining factory wharf in Crater Bay. If the sea was rough they had to clamber around the rocks on a very narrow track on the crater’s edge. Before the days of antibiotics, sulfur was used in medicines as an antibacterial agent, in the making of match heads, and for sterilising wine corks. The miner’s diggings were handled in small rail trucks to the crushing and bagging process in the factory built on the island. Unfortunately, there was not enough sulfur at Whakaari and so the ground-up rock was used as a component of agricultural fertiliser. Eventually the mining ended in the 1930s because of the poor mineral content in the fertiliser. The remains of the buildings can still be seen, much corroded by the sulfuric gases.