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

Whakaari/White Island

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 9 (September 1981)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Little eruptive activity for six months; B-type events increase

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1981. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 6:9. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198109-241040

Whakaari/White Island

New Zealand

37.52°S, 177.18°E; summit elev. 294 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)

On 18 September, NZGS personnel found that little eruptive activity had occurred in the last 6 months. The fine tephra evenly mantling the main crater floor showed rain wash, pitting, and considerable erosion along the main water courses. A small landslide near the midpoint of the main crater's S rim had sent several tongues of muddy, sulfur-rich, hydrothermally altered material onto the crater floor. A distinctive pink ash that had formed the surface on 6 March was at about 100 mm depth on the rim of 1978 Crater, but was only 30 mm below the surface in the center of the main crater 300 m to the E.

The active subcrater was 200 m wide and 150 m deep. A shallow green pond occupied most of its floor. A 20-30-m-wide vent on the NW side of its floor was emitting pink-tinged gas at high velocity. Throughout the visit this gas and other vapor from 1978 Crater formed a white column.

Fumaroles in a 300 m-wide zone across the main crater floor E of 1978 Crater appeared to be slightly less active than in March. Temperatures were 560°C in a large, reactivated vent; 550°C (100° lower than in March) in a smaller one nearby; and 340°C at a vent now so enlarged that the thermocouple could reach no more than halfway into the pit.

Except for inflation near the center of the main crater, the levelling survey showed no tilt change since May, in contrast to general subsidence earlier in the year. Significant inflation (115 µrad), had occurred just E of active fumaroles about 300 m E of 1978 Crater. The levelling survey team noted that this tilt reversal bears some resemblance to that in April 1980, which preceded the formation of three fumaroles in the same area.

Seismic records 1 August-20 September showed a marked increase in the number of low-frequency (B-type) events from fewer than 5 to more than 30 per day, reversing a decline from late May through mid-July. High-frequency (volcano-tectonic) events numbered fewer than 5/day except on 11 and 12 September, when ten were recorded each day. On 26 August, and 8 and 10 September, single distinctive seismic signatures (symmetric with emergent onsets) were recorded. The NZGS interpreted these as medium-frequency volcanic earthquakes, probably intrusive events. Volcanic tremor was recorded on 10 September.

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. Houghton and I. Nairn, NZGS, Rotorua.