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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — May 1978

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1978)
Managing Editor: David Squires.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Eruptions and seismicity resume in mid-May

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1978. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (Squires, D., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 3:5. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN197805-241040.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin


Whakaari/White Island

New Zealand

37.52°S, 177.18°E; summit elev. 294 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)


Eruptions accompanied by seismicity resumed on 13 May after more than a month of weak to moderate fumarolic activity. Voluminous dark eruption clouds rising to about 3,000 m were reported by persons living near the Bay of Plenty (50-60 km from White Island) on 13 May, but poor weather hampered observations for the next several days. Visibility improved on the morning of 17 May, and a large cloud was seen from Whakatane, 55 km S of White Island. An aerial inspection early that afternoon revealed a 2,000-m steam cloud, containing little or no ash, fed by vigorous fumarolic activity from several sites, including a new, nearly horizontal fumarole on the SW wall of Christmas Crater. Fine dark gray ash mantling the main crater floor had been disrupted by rainfall on 15 May and probably 16 May. No coarse debris or impact craters were visible.

Subsidence, not seen during the previous overflight (2 May), was defined by arcuate scarps extending from the W wall of the new (Gibrus) crater to the SE wall of Christmas Crater. Vigorous steaming occurred from the collapse scarps, which were displaced about 1 m down to the NE.

Low-amplitude, low-frequency tremor began at about 2100 on 12 May and amplitude increased for about 22 hours. A similar tremor episode started on 15 May at about 0300, increased in amplitude until around 1900, then gradually subsided 16-18 May. Low-frequency B-type shocks accompanied the first period of tremor, but decreased noticeably during the second tremor episode.

Geologic Background. The uninhabited Whakaari/White Island is the 2 x 2.4 km emergent summit of a 16 x 18 km submarine volcano in the Bay of Plenty about 50 km offshore of North Island. The island consists of two overlapping andesitic-to-dacitic stratovolcanoes. The SE side of the crater is open at sea level, with the recent activity centered about 1 km from the shore close to the rear crater wall. Volckner Rocks, sea stacks that are remnants of a lava dome, lie 5 km NW. Descriptions of volcanism since 1826 have included intermittent moderate phreatic, phreatomagmatic, and Strombolian eruptions; activity there also forms a prominent part of Maori legends. The formation of many new vents during the 19th and 20th centuries caused rapid changes in crater floor topography. Collapse of the crater wall in 1914 produced a debris avalanche that buried buildings and workers at a sulfur-mining project. Explosive activity in December 2019 took place while tourists were present, resulting in many fatalities. The official government name Whakaari/White Island is a combination of the full Maori name of Te Puia o Whakaari ("The Dramatic Volcano") and White Island (referencing the constant steam plume) given by Captain James Cook in 1769.

Information Contacts: B. Scott, E. Lloyd, B. Houghton, NZGS, Rotorua.