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The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

15 May 2023

White Island in 2013. Image credit: Gérard from Nouméa, (Nouvelle-Calédonie), CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari documents the volcanic eruption that ended in tragedy at Whakaari (White Island), New Zealand, on 9 December 2019.  Directed by Emmy award-winning and Oscar-nominated Rory Kennedy, the film captures the local and global impact of the volcanic event, where 22 people were killed and 25 were critically injured. It chronicles the perspectives of surviving tourists, tour guides, their family members, and the local community of Whakatāne, a town along the Eastern Bay of Plenty on the North Island of New Zealand, just over 50 km onshore from Whakaari – one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes. 

Whakaari is a submarine andesitic-dacitic stratovolcano, with only its summit exposed as a small island at the surface. It sits on the northern end of the Taupo Volcanic Zone in a back-arc basin, where the Pacific Plate is being subducted westwards beneath the Australian Plate. Whakaari’s raw and unrelenting beauty is succinctly captured in the film’s opening, through vivid imagery of the volcano’s crater lake, brilliantly yellow sulphur deposits, and on-going emanations of gas. 

As visceral as its natural wonder, so too is Whakaari’s natural danger, documented by survivor footage of the 4-km-high eruption plume. White steam turns to blackened ash after a series of deadly blasts, and the adventurous mood quickly transforms to a darker reality. Although the film captures the deep emotion and human tragedy of the event with devastating clarity, a closer look into the volcanology and hazard management associated with this catastrophic eruption is lacking. The viewer is easily left baffled as to how such tragedy could have occurred, much like those who endured the eruption’s brute force. The only mention of the hazards posed to tourists is a brief reference to risk level by Mark, brother of Whakaari tour guide, Hayden, who sadly lost his life to the disaster. Mark explains that risk levels 0-3 have “wide scope” and the immediate risk faced at level 1 or 2 is vague before it morphs into level 3, meaning an eruption is ongoing. Indeed, volcanic alert bulletins are provided by New Zealand’s Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS), with alert levels ranging from 0, signifying ‘no volcanic unrest’, to 5, signifying ‘major volcanic eruption’, where 3 represents a ‘minor volcanic eruption’. However, these alert levels are not conclusive forecasts but indications of what is happening at the volcano at the time. GNS had documented minor surface deformation weeks before the eruption, while monitoring by tourism companies detected some enhanced seismic activity and elevated gas emissions. However, an eruption did not seem imminent, given Whakaari’s already consistent activity. 

The science behind how such an eruption occurs is not detailed in the film and part of what makes such events so unpredictable is this very science.

Volcano tourism is a thriving source of income for the Whakatāne community, but the tragedy inevitably sparked huge controversy surrounding trips to such an active site. As highlighted by the lack of detail on eruption forecasting provided in the programme, the downfall seems to have been the communication of uncertainty, that is, the “wide scope” of the alert levels provided to the public; tourists appear to participate in trips to the island under the impression that safety is guaranteed.  The 2019 event was a steam blast or phreatic eruption, where victims’ injuries mostly involved severe or fatal burns. The science behind how such an eruption occurs is not detailed in the film and part of what makes such events so unpredictable is this very science. Whakaari’s volcanism has been dominated by magma superheating water close to the surface, where it is trapped and pressurised by rock formations and overburden. One small crack in the pressurised system will cause a blast of volcanic rock, as the water flashes to steam. Such events can happen without warning and exceptionally quickly; indeed, the entire eruption at Whakaari lasted only 12 minutes. 

The film’s take-home message, from a geoscientific perspective, is clear. Geoscientists and the public require better exchanges of information to facilitate tourist-nature interactions, where all parties are aware of the risk and uncertainty involved. With sites like Whakaari, perhaps activity is simply too great and the risk too uncertain to allow such intimate tourist visits. With that sentiment, guided trips to the island have not resumed since the disaster. However, regardless of the shortcomings in hazard and volcanological detail, the film captures one thread consistently: human bravery in the face of catastrophe; without which, many Whakaari survivors would not be here to tell their story.   

By Lucy Blennerhassett 

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari (2022) is available on Netflix (subscription required). 


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