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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — March 1981

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 3 (March 1981)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Explosions and seismicity; tephra and tilt measured

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1981. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 6:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198103-241040.

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 17 January and 6 March, and overflew the volcano on 24 February after reports of explosive eruptions in January. On 17 January, a weakly convoluting gas column charged with light brown ash was issuing from the active vent in the S part of 1978 Crater. Gray tephra covered the main crater floor. Since the magmatic activity in early November, about 500 mm of ash had been deposited near the 1978 Crater rim, about 230 mm since 2 December. Two or possibly three generations of impact craters, the youngest perhaps less than a day or two old, were found 250-600 m NE of the active vent, with concentrations of up to 3 craters/m2 300-400 m away. Crater diameters ranged from 30 mm to 1.2 m. Blocks up to 0.7 m in diameter were found in some of the impact craters, but no fresh magma appeared to have been ejected. The apparent near-vertical final trajectory of the blocks in the impact craters was striking.

Seismic records showed that periods of high-frequency tremor occurred 7-13, 17-19, 22-23 and 25-28 January, and 30 January-11 February. Short bursts of harmonic tremor were recorded after the high-frequency tremor declined. Large discrete events (eruption sequences) were recorded on 24 and 29 January and 6, 12, 17, 23 and 24 February. The eruption accompanying the 24 January event produced ashfall at Cape Runaway (75 km E of White Island, on the mainland) and was witnessed by P. M. Otway (NZGS).

So little gas and tephra were being emitted during the 24 February overflight that viewing was excellent. The main crater floor appeared to be covered by a thick layer of red-brown principally fine-grained tephra. Impact craters formed since 17 January pocked the floor to 600 m E of the active vent, the greatest range since the March 1977 eruptions.

On 6 March, emissions from the active vent, entrenched in a subcrater at least 200 m deep, were very low. The rim of 1978 Crater showed no major changes, but a large portion of the crater floor N of the active vent had been raised several m by rapid accumulation of tephra between 17 January and 24 February. At the E edge of 1978 Crater rim, 410 mm of new tephra overlay earlier deposits. Within a kilometer to the E, the new tephra thinned to about 8 mm. The surface layer was a fine pink ash (mean diameter about 63 µm) containing abundant lithic clasts, subordinate crystals of pyroxene and olivine and minor amounts of glassy, weakly to moderately vesicular, essential, low-silica andesite. This layer was underlain by a finer green ash containing a greater percentage of essential clasts.

A few new impact craters had formed just outside 1978 Crater's E rim, some occupied by lithic blocks that were not coated with ash. Some of the older impact craters scattered across the main crater floor contained buried scoriaceous bombs, apparently of recent magmatic origin.

Fumaroles checked from the air in February were monitored in March. The inspection team measured minimum temperatures of 490°-650°C at 3 fumaroles formed within the past year E of 1978 Crater rim. One is the most energetic feature on the island other than the active vent.

The March levelling survey showed that subsidence had continued after the previous survey on 2 December. The volcano had deflated about 300 µrad since May, the peak of a 6-month period of inflation (figure 8). The greatest deformation, 12-13 mm since December and a total of 60 mm since May, was about in the center of the main crater, near the zone of fumarolic activity just E of 1978 Crater.

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, B. Houghton, and I. Nairn, NZGS, Rotorua.