At least one person died and several others are missing after a volcano on a small island off New Zealand’s east coast erupted Monday, sending plumes of smoke and ash 40,000 feet into the sky.
“A number of people are reportedly injured and are being transported to shore,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who added that dozens of tourists were on or near White Island when the “very significant” incident occurred. New Zealand’s police commissioner, John Tims, said there would likely be more deaths.
White Island, covered in ash, was too dangerous for emergency workers to reach, he told a news conference, standing beside Ms. Ardern. He said 23 people had been rescued from the island but there had been no communication with anyone left behind. Ash and smoke made it difficult for cameras pointed towards the volcano to monitor its activity to see anyone on the island.
“We know the urgency to go back to the island,” he told reporters.
Ms. Ardern was traveling to Whakatane, the town closest to the affected area, on Monday night.
“I know that there will be a huge amount of anxiety for those who had loved ones on the island at the time,” she said, adding she would not provide details on the identity of the person who had died.
“We don’t have full clarity at this point and you’ll understand why we’re loath to get into speculation.”
Tourists from a visiting cruise ship were believed to be among those who visited the island on Monday, according to Police Commissioner Tims. He said police were due to receive a list of those who were on the ship and had gone to the island.
GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, initially raised its volcanic alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption. The eruption was reported to have occurred at 2:11 p.m. local time. Several hours later, GeoNet lowered the alert level to three, noting there was no further escalation in volcanic activity.
White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, is located about 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island. Thousands of tourists visit the island every year, even as the volcano continues to be active.
People who live along the coast of the Bay of Plenty, where White Island sits, messaged local news services reporting ash falling from the sky.
The police have established a no-fly zone around the island and warned people living near areas that might be affected by falling ash to remain indoors and listen to the radio or television for news updates.
Ash fall can contain jagged particles of abrasive rock or natural glass, and anyone exposed to it was advised to wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief to cover their noses and mouths and wear goggles to protect their eyes.
Ken Glairdhill from research institute GNS Science likened the eruption to the volcano ‘clearing its throat,’ and said that while it looked like it had quietened down, authorities could not be certain there wouldn’t be another eruption within the next 24 hours.
The volcano is New Zealand’s most active, with 70 percent of the volcano under the sea. People were allowed to visit the island even after GeoNet had earlier issued bulletins warning of “moderate volcanic unrest” with “substantial gas, steam and mud bursts” observed at the crater lake.
“We’ve issued two or three bulletins in the last few weeks about the increase in activity,” Brad Scott, a GeoNet volcanologist, said in an interview.
He said even though the volcano has been erupting since 2011, tourists have been undeterred, with visits to the island dating back to the late 1800s.
He said the agency passes its information on the volcano’s activity to tour operators and the police, but tourists make their own decisions about whether to visit the island.
“The weather has traditionally been the only thing that has stopped visitors,” he said, noting that the volcano sits in the open ocean and people wanting to reach it have to contend with rough waters to make the journey.
The last time there was a large number of fatalities on White Island had nothing to do with a volcanic eruption. In 1914, part of a crater wall collapsed, causing a landslide and killing 10 men mining sulfur.
The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours attract more than 10,000 people to the volcano every year.