Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dance on a Volcano

I’ve just been to New Zealand’s most active volcano. It’s an amazing experience.

I’ve looked at a few other volcanoes before. I’ve stood in the Andes at a height that made me short of breath and gazed at the huge conical peaks towering over me. I’ve peered down into the steaming pit at Ngauruhoe’s summit. I’ve poked around the various thermal fields between Rotorua and Taupo, and marveled at the notion that the whole of Lake Taupo is a volcano. And, on a couple of occasions, I have been to Hawaii and seen the lava from Kilauea rolling down the slopes into the sea.

But White Island is special. It’s a marine volcano, to start with, and it’s continuously active, though generally at a low level of activity, but it erupts quite violently every few years. If it was on the mainland we would have to treat it as a serious hazard. Also, there is history there – men have lived on the island at various times to mine the sulphur that comes from the volcano.

You get to White Island by boat. Well, there are helicopter tours as well, but they cost more than double the boat trip so with a family to pay for the choice was easy. It’s a pleasant enough ride, about an hour and a half each way. I wouldn’t go if the sea was rough, but that’s just me.

The island is the eroded remnant of a single cone, with an active crater just above sea level. The crater is surrounded on three sides and the fourth is where the boat lands. Inside the crater are patches of yellow sulphur, jets of steam and worse from roaring fumaroles, and a deep and hot crater lake. The water on the lake, we were told, is acidic to the point that it has a negative pH value. I didn’t know that was possible. Definitely worth not falling into!

wi from boat.JPG

wi sulphur.JPG

wi crater.JPG

wi factory.JPG

You are guided for all your time on the island. That’s pretty much a necessity for safety reasons. We were all made to sign statements saying that we understood the risks. The guide said that, if the island were not privately owned, it’s dubious whether the public would be allowed access at all, on safety grounds. If some risk-averse public official were to be held responsible, then I expect people wouldn’t get any say in the level risk they are prepared to tolerate and the island would be completely closed.

The tour company gives you a hard hat, which you have to wear all the time, and a gas mask – wearing optional. I wore my gas mask for a few minutes when near a particularly pungent fumarole. There’s also a lecture when you arrive about potential bad things that might happen (it might erupt) and what do (hide behind a mound of rock).

Anyway, I’m very glad to have been. It’s a great New Zealand experience, and one I am glad is open for us to enjoy.

posted by colin at 5:34 pm  

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