I would normally follow up “Volcanoes are dangerous” with “No schist Sherlock”…
Guest commentary by David Middleton, Iowa Climate Science
Then again, I’ve seen idiot tourists crossing safety barriers at Grand Canyon NP and eating a picnic lunch in the forest at Grand Tetons NP – right under a sign that said, “No Open Food Containers. Bears Present”. There’s a reason the park gift shop sells fire extinguisher-sized pepper spray dispensers.
No active volcano is safe. Neither are dormant volcanoes. White Island was exceptionally unsafe.
I ran across this article some time ago, when researching a possible post on volcanoes:
How Dangerous is Visiting New Zealand’s White Island?
THERE HAS ALWAYS been a fragile relationship between volcanoes and tourism.
However, the danger can appear to be low in some places but in reality, you are literally putting your lives in the hands of tour operators when you make the visit.
One of the best examples of this might be White Island in New Zealand. Off the northern coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty, White Island is an active volcano that is part of the volcanic arc that stretches from the Kermadec Islands to the north all the way to Ruapehu in the south. Most of the volcanic edifice sits underwater, but the main crater is above water, sitting out like a sentinel in the Bay. Boat tours of White Island occur daily from Whakatane, where tourists can go to the island and actually walk inside the main crater – which, in theory, is nothing more hazardous than taking a stroll through the Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone or Bumpass Hell at Lassen. However, unlike those locations, White Island has erupted recently – in fact, between 1998-2001, the volcano produced multiple VEI 2-3 eruptions and is one of the most active in New Zealand.
Does this mean that tours shouldn’t happen? It is a tricky question. I was in New Zealand in 2009 and considered taking the White Island tour. However, the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that these tours, although offering warning to tourists of the potential dangers, are potentially the perfect cocktail for a Galeras-like tragedy. By making the visits to the White Island crater seem routine, it can lull the tour operators and tourists into a false sense of security, much like what happened with Stanley Williams and the other volcanologists who visited the crater of Galeras in January 1993. In the case of Galeras, the volcanologists were caught off guard by a relatively small explosion in the crater, leading to the deaths of 6 of the science team and 3 tourists. Visiting White Island is almost exactly the same as climbing down into the crater at Galeras, and although GNS Science keeps close tabs on the activity at White Island, the 1993 tragedy at Galeras shows that even seasoned veterans of volcano monitoring can be fooled or volcanoes can erupt with little to no notice (such as what White Island did in 2000) … and unlike the Tongariro Crossing that passes between two active volcanoes, the White Island tours go into the active volcano’s crater.
For the White Island tours, people are given protective equipment like gas masks and helmets, but if even a small phreatic (steam-driven) explosion were to happen when a group was in the crater, the consequences could be catastrophic. Will it take a half dozen deaths at White Island to change the culture, or is that merely the cost of being adventurous? It is hard to say.