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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — August 1979

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 8 (August 1979)
Managing Editor: David Squires.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Eruptions of fresh ash continue

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1979. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (Squires, D., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 4:8. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN197908-241040.

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)


NZGS personnel visited White Island on 6 August. Rapidly convoluting clouds of gas and fresh ash were ejected every 5-30 seconds, apparently from a magma column deep in the active vent. Ashfall rates at the 1978 Crater rim reached 1 mm/10-20 seconds. During the 3 1/2 hours of observations, a single more violent explosion threw 1-10 m-diameter blocks about 100 m above the crater.

Samples of the 6 August tephra were crystal-rich, containing plagioclase, pyroxene, olivine (?), both a pumiceous and nonvesicular (low-silica) andesitic glass, and limited amounts of altered lithic material.

Temperatures measured at the hottest accessible fumaroles (using a thermocouple) reached a maximum of 400°C, similar to those recorded during the last ground inspection, on 28 May. Since then, 213 mm of new tephra had fallen at a sampling site 20 m from the 1978 Crater rim, along the axis of maximum airfall.

A new level survey indicated that deflation in the direction of the vent continued (figure 8) although the deflation rate had slowed from a maximum of 40 µrad/month between December 1978 and April 1979 to 17 µrad/month since 28 May. A magnetic resurvey showed a substantial decrease in near-vent values, consistent with the change to magmatic activity since the last survey, in December 1978.

Figure (see Caption) Figure 8. Tilt data 50 m E of Donald Mound, 28 August 1977-7 January 1983. [Originally from SEAN 08:01]. Courtesy of NZGS.

Seismic activity since 7 June (when the seismometer resumed operation) included long periods of medium-frequency volcanic tremor, interspersed with quiet periods. [An estimated 1,150 events occurred in a 6-hour period on 22 July.] Five low-frequency earthquakes (apparently B-type) were recorded 30-31 July. [Microearthquakes continued, with only minor breaks, until at least 30 September.]

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. Houghton and I. Nairn, NZGS, Rotorua.