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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — September 1990

Whakaari/White Island

Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, vol. 15, no. 9 (September 1990)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Ash and block eruption; new crater formed; no juvenile material

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1990. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (McClelland, L., ed.). Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, 15:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.BGVN199009-241040

Whakaari/White Island

New Zealand

37.52°S, 177.18°E; summit elev. 294 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

An ash- and block-ejecting eruption occurred within the 1978/90 Crater Complex on 2 October, forming a new crater ~50 m in diameter at a site where high heat flow had been measured on 30 August. The eruption was well-recorded seismically and observed from fishing boats, commercial airliners, and coastal towns. The eruption column rose ~2,000 m above the crater, and was capped by an expanded cloud to >3,000 m.

Pre-eruption seismicity. Since early September the level of seismicity at White Island has been relatively low. Small A-type (high-frequency) volcanic earthquakes have been recorded most days but usually numbered <4/day. The number of B-type (low-frequency) volcanic earthquakes has declined, with only 2-3 events being recorded some days. E-type events were recorded on 10, 11, 13, 14, and 15 September, but no reports of associated eruptions have been received.

Eruptive episode. On 2 October, two seismic events were recorded. The first, at 1133, had an emergent high-frequency onset (3-5 Hz) lasting ~40 seconds. The dominant frequency then declined to 1-3 Hz, continuing for the next 10 minutes. No eruption accompanied this seismicity. The second event started at 1209, with an envelope of quite pure low-frequency tremor lasting for 20 seconds followed by another smaller sequence at 1210. The tail of this event led straight into a high-frequency signal that gradually increased in amplitude over the next 40 seconds (maximum 20 mm). The intense high-frequency signal lasted 5 minutes and was similar to past seismicity accompanying ash columns, as on 7 September 1987 (SEAN 12:09). During the high-frequency seismicity, the first reports of an eruption column were received from Whakatane, 50 km SSW (Brian Spake, Harbour Master); its first appearance was timed at between 1208 and 1209. Over the next 15 minutes the seismic signal gradually declined to background levels. Neither of the long-duration seismic events of 2 October are typical E-type events as described by Latter et al. (1989).

Crater observations. During fieldwork the day of the eruption, geologists observed a new crater some 50 m in diameter in the NE portion of 1978/90 Crater, merging with its sheer E wall. The new crater edge was scalloped and appeared to have a near-vertical inner wall of 10-20 m or more at the W side, the only part not obscured by steam. Much ejecta was thrown out during the crater-forming eruption, but its morphology suggests that significant collapse contributed to its present size. On 30 August, the new crater area had been a debris slope with intense fumarolic emission. Best views of the vent were obtained on 3 October, when it was quietly emitting voluminous clouds of ash-free white steam, tinged with yellow (possibly condensed sulfur vapor). The new vent was named TV1 Crater.

A continuous apron of ejecta extended ~30 m back from the lip of 1978/90 Crater directly above TV1 Crater. The ejecta, up to ~20 cm thick, was comprised of old rocks, gravel, and sand. Individual ballistic blocks fell far beyond the continuous ejecta apron to roughly 200 m away, where rocks up to 0.3 m across were embedded in impact craters 5 m or so apart. The blocks had fallen on near-vertical trajectories. At 1635 on 2 October, the largest blocks in the ejecta apron were still too hot to touch. There was no sign of any new coarse ejecta from Donald Mound. A sample of coarse gravel and sand collected 2 m from 1978/90 Crater rim was largely altered lava, breccia, and tuff, with a small amount of weakly consolidated bedded tuff. No fresh material was seen in this sample, and no new scoria bombs were seen anywhere in the ejecta apron.

The lake previously in the SE part of 1978/90 Crater had disappeared, and appeared to have been infilled by detritus. Another new vent, ~5 m in diameter, was visible under the SW wall of 1978/90 Crater (roughly opposite TV1 Crater). It was surrounded by a small, raised apron of ejecta, and was emitting low-pressure steam on 3 October.

Geologists noted that the E-type events on 10-15 September may have been associated with the formation of a vent, which has now developed into TV1 Crater, but there were no direct observations during that time. Seismic evidence suggests that it was largely or completely formed during the 2 October eruption.

Reference. Latter, J.H., Scott, B.J., and Dibble, R.R., 1989, Seismic activity associated with the 1976-82 eruption sequence at White Island volcano: New Zealand Geological Survey Bulletin, no. 103.

Geological Summary. 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 and C. Wood, NZGS Rotorua.