White Island volcano eruption – Death toll rises to 17, 2 people remain missing, New Zealand


An impulsive, short-lived eruption occurred at New Zealand's White Island volcano at 01:11 UTC (14:11 LT) on December 9, 2019. The Volcanic Alert Level was raised to 3 and Aviation Color Code to Orange. The eruption affected the crater floor where up to 50 tourists were located at the time. 

According to police reports by 09:10 UTC on December 9, at least 5 people have been killed and 20 were injured. 8 people are still missing.

An unknown number of people are still on the island. Both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to involved. 

"Police is currently taking advice from GeoNet experts, who have advised that due to the current risk environment, emergency services remain unable to access the island," NZ Police said 09:10 UTC.

"While it was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption, we now believe there were fewer than 50. Some of those people have been transported to shore, however, a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for," they reported at 03:59 UTC.

"A volcanic eruption is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano. Volcanic hazards may impact on and near the volcano. Ashfall may impact areas distant from the volcano. People should stay out of designated restricted zones. A no-fly zone has been established."

"Our monitoring data shows that there was a short-lived eruption that generated an ash plume to approximately 3.6 km (12 000 feet) above the vent," GeoNet Duty Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said.

"Ash has covered the main crater floor as seen in our webcam images. Ashfall appears to be confined to the island and we do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours.

"Our monitoring equipment is still operating, and we have seen a steady decline in activity since the eruption. There remains significant uncertainty as to future changes but currently, there are no signs of escalation."

Civil Defence emergency management director Sarah Stewart-Black said the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) did not expect the eruption to have any effect on the people of the Bay of Plenty.

Police National Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims said 7 helicopters rushed to the island following the eruption. "Most of the rescued people had burns," Tims said.

"We know that there were a number of tourists on or around the island today, both from New Zealand and overseas," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a press conference on Monday night.

​"An active police search and rescue operation is underway," Ardern said.

White Island Tour operators rescuing people. Images captured by Michael Schade at 14:24 LT (13 minutes after the eruption)


13:25 UTC

Recovery operation

The Police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter, and NZDF aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption.

No signs of life have been seen at any point.

Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.

Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.

Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already.

As part of the recovery, a NZDF ship will approach the perimeter of the island at first light to deploy drones and observational equipment to further assess the environment.

Police continue to receive information and advice from GeoNet experts to support the recovery operation.


Helicopter pilot talks about being one of the first people on the scene at White Island tragedy

Scale of burns injuries from White Island disaster ‘a unique event’

05:49 UTC, December 10

Inquiries with tour operators indicate that 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, the police said in a statement, adding that in addition to the 5 people confirmed deceased, 8 people remain unaccounted for following the eruption.

31 patients are currently being treated at 7 hospitals and three have been treated and discharged. Some of the patients are reportedly in critical condition.

"Work is continuing today to enable the recovery of the eight people who remain unaccounted for on Whakaari / White Island following yesterday’s eruption," the police said. "Recovering the remaining victims and returning them to their loved ones is an absolute priority for NZ Police"

Police said it's working with GNS Science to get an understanding of the current environment and the likelihood of any further volcanic activity, as well as any risks posed to recovery teams by gases in the atmosphere.

"This is a heartbreaking situation for all involved and we are working to provide every support possible to the families and loved ones of those killed and injured in the eruption."

Although they previously announced a criminal investigation, they've later issued a correction, stating that it's still too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation.

No further eruptions have occurred since yesterday.

"Since the eruption, seismic activity has dropped to low levels and there has been no further eruptive activity. However, we are still observing localized steam and mud jetting from the active vent area," GNS Duty Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour noted 22:45 UTC yesterday. 

Similar activity continued into December 10. Seismic activity remains weak and there has been no further eruptive activity.

Over the next 24 hours, we still estimate an equal likelihood of either no eruption or a smaller/similar sized eruption that would impact the main crater floor, based on our observations and measurements, Kilgour said.

"There is a high level of uncertainty associated with this estimate and we are working to reduce that uncertainty. We also estimate the least likely scenario is a larger eruption. There is an extremely low likelihood of any ash impact to the mainland, but people may smell gas, depending on the prevailing wind direction."

The Volcanic Alert Level remains at Level 3. The Aviation Colour Code remains at Orange.

07:22 UTC, December 11

The death toll has risen to 6 and the number of missing people to 9, NZ Police said. 30 people are still in hospitals. 25 of them are critical with the remainder stable but serious.

01:52 UTC, December 13

The Volcanic Alert Level is reduced to Level 2. There has not been any further eruptive activity since Monday’s eruption, GNS Science Duty Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour noted in a bulletin released 21:20 UTC, December 11 (10:20 LT, on December 12). 

The Aviation Color Code remains Orange.

In the last few hours, volcanic tremor has decreased but it is still very high compared to normal levels. Vigorous steam and mud bursts continue from the active vent area, Kilgour noted at 04:00 UTC on December 12 (17:00 LT on December 12).

"The combined interpretation of our data is that magma is degassing at shallow depths and the situation remains highly volatile. Another gas flight was completed today, and the data is currently being analyzed to support our ongoing understanding of the volcano. There is still a medium likelihood (50-60%) of eruptive activity in the next 24 hours. We have updated the eruption probability table."

The death toll rose to 8 after two more people died.

NZ Defence Force assets with specialized equipment went to the island late December 12 (UTC) and recovered 6 bodies. Two more are still on the island.

Whakaari / White Island: Police detail plan to recover bodies on Friday morning

The operation to recover the bodies this morning is going to plan, NZ Police said in a statement released 20:15 UTC, December 12 (09:15 LT, December 13).

"The recovery team is in the area where we believe the majority of the bodies are. The operation is taking more time than expected, this is due to the protective equipment the recovery team is wearing which can be restrictive and heavy but is necessary. Conditions for the operation are good in regard to the weather, sea state and the environment on the island."

6 bodies were on board HMNZS Wellington at 22:11 UTC and on mainland shortly after.

10:45 UTC, December 23

The number of casualties after the eruption on December 9th rose to 19 on Monday, December 23, after another person died at an Auckland hospital overnight. The number includes the two people who are still missing (presumed dead). (Source)

Related articles:

White Island: Significantly increased volcanic tremor, new eruptions likely, New Zealand (December 11)

47 people at White Island at the time of eruption, periodic steam and gas driven jetting continues (December 10)

Geological summary

Uninhabited 2 x 2.4 km (1.2 x 1.5 miles) White Island, one of New Zealand's most active volcanoes, is the emergent summit of a 16 x 18 km (10 x 11.2 miles) submarine volcano in the Bay of Plenty about 50 km (31 miles) offshore of North Island. 

The island consists of two overlapping andesitic-to-dacitic stratovolcanoes; the summit crater appears to be breached to the SE, because the shoreline corresponds to the level of several notches in the SE crater wall. Volckner Rocks, four sea stacks that are remnants of a lava dome, lie 5 km (3.1 miles) NNE.

Intermittent moderate phreatomagmatic and strombolian eruptions have occurred throughout the short historical period beginning in 1826, but its activity also forms a prominent part of Maori legends.

Formation of many new vents during the 19th and 20th centuries has produced 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. (GVP)

Featured image credit: Michael Shade


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  1. FYI the geologic summary says it is an ice covered volcanic complex. There is not a piece of ice on White Island, so I don’t know where that is coming from. Its about 40 deg attitude and barely 1000m in height.

  2. Yesterday, I wrote the following. THE RATE OF COSMIC RAYS WILL BREAK THE SPACE AGE RECORD IN 2020. Cosmic rays have been intensifying for more than 4 years. This weekend they surged within a percentage point of the Space Age record, according to data from neutron counters at the University of Oulu’s Cosmic Ray Station in Finland. Surely, the previous record will be broken in early 2020. That means climate change will intensify and the geological upheaval will get-underway

    1. My best guess for the low of this minimum would be around Aug/Sept. It has a way to go before ending. My prediction made in mid 2014 was that this minimum would end somewhere between June to Sept of 2020. I also successfully predicted the start of this current minimum back in March 2014. At that time all of the experts were thinking anywhere from 2021 to 2023. I made comments on WUWT at the time. Dr Svalgaard, who successfully predicted SC24 activity levels, plainly said no way that it would set in that early. He expected the current minimum to start around 2020/21, and end around 2023/24 back in 2014.

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