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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — November 1986

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 11, no. 11 (November 1986)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Ash emission and continuing seismicity

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1986. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 11:11. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198611-241040.

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)


Geologists visited the crater 29-30 October. Ash emission, predominantly from Congress Vent (active since February) was heavy on 29 October but light the next day. The vent appeared to be inclined 40-50° toward the base of Donald Mound, several tens of meters to the E. A level survey showed that an area NW of Donald Mound had continued to subside, a pattern that has persisted since 1984 (SEAN 11:08).

Fumarole temperatures, measured in three vents on 29 October, ranged from 279 to 470°C, continuing a general decline since 6 May. During the evening, orange glow was visible in two fumaroles and a blue flame (caused by sulfur oxidation) in one. No glow was observed in Congress Vent.

Two layers of gray ash had accumulated on the W portion of the main crater since 1 August; 27 mm were measured at one site E of the 1978 Crater rim. The ash, much of which was thought to be reworked crater floor tephra, resembled the July ejecta but contained less fresh magma.

Since late October 1985, low-frequency (B-type) volcanic earthquakes have dominated seismicity, occurring at a rate of 5 to >50 events a day. High-frequency events were relatively rare (usually <3/day) but reached a maximum of 36/day. Wide-band, long-duration earthquake sequences were recorded on 3 days in August and September; weak-medium amplitude, low-medium frequency volcanic tremor was recorded on 17 days in August and 9 days in October. Seismic signatures could not be correlated with any of the numerous reported eruption columns in early October.

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: J. Cole, Victoria Univ, Wellington; P. Otway and S. Sherburn, NZGS Wairakei; B. Scott, NZGS Rotorua; W. Giggenbach, Dept of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR), New Zealand.