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Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) — June 1987

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 6 (June 1987)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) Explosions weaken; inflation accelerates

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1987. Report on Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) (McClelland, L., ed.). Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 12:6. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198706-241040.

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)


Tephra emission and seismicity declined after the vigorous explosive activity of 13-22 May. Eruption (E-type) sequences were recorded on most seismograms between 22 May and 7 June. The largest event, at 1508 on 4 June, was accompanied by an eruption column clearly visible from the Bay of Plenty coast,>50 km away. Weak medium-frequency volcanic tremor was recorded 22-24 and 26 May, and lower-amplitude tremor bands, each lasting 4-10 hours, have dominated the background of most records since then. The number of low-frequency B-type earthquakes ranged from 3 to 15/day, but amplitudes were considerably lower than earlier in the year.

Geologists visited the crater on 11 June for the first time since the mid-May explosions. Only gas and minor ash emission was occurring from the active (Hitchhiker) vent on the floor of Congress Crater. Ballistic blocks probably ejected by the May explosions had fallen >700 m from the vent, and formed impact craters 0.5 m in diameter within 50 m of the coast (at Crater Bay). Since the 12 May visit, 900 mm of tephra had fallen at a site 60 m ESE of the rim of Congress Crater, but deposits thinned rapidly farther from the vent. All of the examined lapilli- to block-sized ejecta was lithic material, most altered, but some unaltered dense black andesite lava was found. The volume of the May-June tephra was in the order of 105 m3, about half of the total volume of 1987 ejecta.

Rapid local inflation, centered ~200 m ESE of the vent (in the Donald Mound area) occurred between the 12 May and 11 June levelling surveys. Maximum uplift was 29 mm, compared to 7 mm the previous month. Magnetic data showed a sharp (-100 nT) anomaly N of Donald Mound and a broader +100 nT anomaly to the SE. The NZGS interpreted the combined deformation/magnetic data to suggest that local heating was occurring at depths of 200-300 m.

During a brief visit on 30 June, a steam plume containing a little ash rose from the vent, but less vigorously than on 11 June. No new ejecta were evident near the crater rim, but heavy rains within the previous 2-3 days had disrupted the ground surface.

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: I. Nairn and B. Scott, NZGS Rotorua.