Whakaari White Island; how we approach risk
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater lake, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.
A tour helicopter flies close to the steam plume emanating from the crater fumaroles, White Island andesite stratovolcano, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand North Island, 2017.

It’s just over a year now since the eruption on Whakaari White Island. At the time I chose not to upload images of the island, out of respect for those who died, and those who were injured. Stepping ashore on White Island (or Wharaaki, to give it its Maori name) inevitably involved a degree or risk. How much risk, and how aware were those stepping ashore as tourists (or tour guides) of the risks, are questions that cannot easily be answered. A more general question, and one very relevant to our current situation, is how much risk are we willing to accept. Scientists estimate there is about a 75% chance San Francisco will experience a major earthquake in the next 30 years. That doesn’t stop people moving there. In many ways the past year has revolved around our perception of risk; what, and how much, risk is acceptable in our lives. What has caused much heated debate is that, with the outbreak of a novel virus, this is no longer seen as a matter of individual choice; one person’s acceptable of risk can be viewed as placing others at risk, and so conflict has arisen in determining the balance between protecting all of society and regard for individual freedoms. Hopefully what may arise out of this is a better informed debate on risk, and how we manage it.

Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand
Fumaroles, White Island (Whakaari) New Zealand

My personal take (excluding issues such as pandemics, where communal decisions are required) is that risk is a very much personal thing. The climber Alex Honnold takes risks that most of us would never do, but few would characterise his meticulous and methodical approach as stupid, he simply has a significantly higher acceptance of risk than we do. With mosts things, I try to assess the risks of any given action, and mitigate as much as possible, then decide whether the remaining – uncontrollable – risks are worth taking. Diving can be seen as being risky, and sometimes it is, but understanding of the risks, good planning and preparation controls much of the risk. Away from the extreme edges (e.g. deep, mixed gas diving) most diving accidents involve human error: carelessness, panic or sometimes stupidity. I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from my stupidity in my younger years without, in most cases, serious consequences.

Risk assessment and risk management has been a core part of my work for much of my professional life, as a diving contractor, an environmental consultant and as a tour guide. When guiding tourists, advising clients or otherwise acting in a professional capacity the level of acceptable risk must always be far lower than they would be at a personal level. The bar must be set to the lowest possible, whilst explaining (as best as possible) exactly what the risk is. As always in the real world, whether this be visiting a volcano, supervising a diving operation, or planning logistics in a remote area, this is not a perfect science and the World is never completely risk free. So the aim must be to both reduce the level of risk to the absolute minimum, and also to inform the client (or employee) exactly what the known risks are. Structured risk assessments have become a required tool for identifying, quantifying and mitigating risk in many industries over the past three decades. There is no doubt they have real benefits, but they also introduce problems. There is a real danger that these become overly bureaucratic operations that distracts from real world assessment. At worst they can become a box-ticking excercise which leads to a false sense of security ‘I’ve addressed all the listed issues therefore everything must be safe’. I can think of more than one operation I have been involved in the past, where tunnel-visioned focus on ticking all the ‘risk’ boxes on a form has lead to very obvious, and sometimes catastrophic, risks being missed. Equally, overly presciptive rules can paralyse operations needlessly by prohibiting operating because a particular parameter is exceeded, when experience shows that the overall conditions are safe (an example of this can be setting a hard upper limit of wind speed for operating small boats, when in reality a number of factors, of which wind speed is only one, will determine sea conditions and whether the operation is safe). Whilst risk assessment documents and policies are essential in the modern world, they are never a substitute for experience. As individuals on the ground it can be very easy to accept the advice of those in higher authority that something is safe, but if they are remote from the situation – not observing conditions in real time – that is where experience can give the confidence to override those decisions. Whilst we all accept that, when operating in a professional and commercial environment, the acceptable risk must always be lower than acceptable on personal and private ventures, commercial considerations to continue can sometimes lead to unacceptable risks being taken, especially when snap decisions are taken under pressure. Perhaps one of the best known such incidents being the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, when commercial climbing expeditions lead a number of relatively inexperienced climbers to the summit. In all 8 climbers, from three expedition teams, died between 10-11 May. Many factors were involved, but the decision to ignore the 2pm agreed turn-around time is one that can, perhaps, be directly linked to commercial pressures. Commercial pressures should never influence decisions of safety, but in reality they can be relentless. In the 2018-19 season there were 11 deaths on Everest, and many of us will have seen the images of climbers standing in line queuing to reach the summit. The delays at high altitude, causing some to run out of supplemental oxygen, were blamed as instrumental in some deaths. Sherpas also spoke of inexperienced client climbers not knowing how to fit crampons.

Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England
Golden Cap, Lyme Bay, SW England

Lack of experience can be a problem on both sides. In 1993, in Lyme Bay, Southwest England, four schoolchildren died in a sea kayaking trip. The trip was lead by two inexperienced and minimally qualified instructors. The group got into difficulties very early in the trip. The schoolchildren appeared to lack the canoeing experience necessary for such a trip. The instructors carried no radios or flares and had, it appeared, little understanding of weather conditions at sea, in particular offshore winds. The resulting court case lead to the jailing of the owner of the activity centre but also the establishment of the UK’s Adventure Activities Licensing Authority, which regulates commercial caving, climbing, trekking and water-sports activities in the UK. Looking further back in time, a similar situation occurred in 1971, when five schoolchildren and one of their group leaders died of exposure on a winter trekking trip in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland. This lead to the requirement of a Mountain Leadership Certificate being required for leaders of educational trips. It is an unfortunate reality that it often takes a tragedy to occur for proper regulation of activities to occur.

White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand
White Island stratovolcano crater lake, New Zealand, late November 2019

To return to the topic of White Island. I took the top photograph in early 2017; in it you can see a tour helicopter completing a pass close to the crater fumaroles, from which the steam cloud was rising. If you look very closely you may be able to make out some tiny figures of people standing at the edge of the crater. When I visited the crater, it was filled with a moderately sized lake. The lake is actually a relatively recent and highly dynamic development. It first formed (as far as we know) in the year 2000, as volcanic activity was abating. Since then its level has risen and fallen dramatically. In 2005 it almost overtopped the rim before falling 25 metres during the following year. It disappeared completely in 2012 after further volcanic activity, reappearing the following year. In 2016, eruptions excavated 13-15 metres of the lake basin. A new lake began to form in late 2017.

Despite having visited the island a number of times over the years, it was not until November 2019 that I was able to walk to the crater lake. Although the surroundings were like visions of hell : steaming sulphurous fumaroles belching noxious gases and hot air laden with gritty, acrid smoke that seared the lungs, the lake itself appeared quite placid. As we stood at it’s edge it appeared almost tempting to dip one’s toe. At over 60 degrees C and with a pH close to that of battery acid, that would have been very unwise indeed. Two weeks later the lake exploded, with tragic results. White Island erupted because the magma (molten rock) is relatively close to the surface. This supra-heats water trapped in pores just beneath the surface, creating a delicately balanced, highly pressurised system. A minor disturbance can upset this balance – with explosive results. This is known as a phreatic eruption – superheated water rises at supersonic speed, expanding up to 1,700 times as it changes to steam. When White Island erupted in 2019 this steam, sulphur dioxide and ash sent up a plume over three kilometres high, with temperatures in the plume over 700 degrees C. Scientists warn that these types of eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict, even when sites are as well monitored as White Island, and that the warning time from observed changes may be only minutes. White Island is one of New Zealand’s most active volcanos; it was particularly active between 1976 and 2000 when many eruptions occurred, some larger than the fatal eruption of December 2019.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. However, if we care to look back there were warnings given. In 2012, vulcanologist Professor Eric Klemetti wrote an article for Wired magazine. In it he wrote:

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.

He continued: 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.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.

In 2019 it was not half a dozen, but 22 people that died, from a phreatic explosion exactly as feared by Professor Klemetti. Again I emphasize, it’s easy to be wise after the event, and for all activities that involve hard to define risk, we rely on advice of experts in that field. The fact that tragic events happened does not necessarily mean that the experts were in any way deficient; it may be that it really was a hugely unlucky event that could not be predicted, and I am not remotely qualified to express an opinion on that. There are also a number of prosecutions ongoing by Worksafe, New Zealand’s health and safety organisation, so for that reason also, comment would be unwise. It is however, worth noting that a similar phreatic eruption occurred on White Island three and a half years previously, in April 2016. This eruption was powerful enough to eject the entire crater lake’s water and underlying sediment many metres deep, along with considerable amounts of ash. No-one died in that eruption, only because it happened at around 9.30 in the evening, so no-one was on the Island. Should this have set off alarm bells? Again I am not qualified to say.

I guess it’s highly unlikely I will ever set foot on the island again and maybe no-one else, other than a few scientists, in my lifetime. But the ramifications of White Island are likely to extend far beyond the island itself. Tours of thermal vents are popular in many parts of New Zealand, and other areas of the World. This tragic event will most certainly influence the way they are approached, and maybe lead to more careful scrutiny of the risks and how they are managed. There is always a danger also of an overreaction, the pendulum never swings to the centre, as the saying goes. It has to be hoped that New Zealand, with its long history in successfuly managing adventurous outdoor activities will find the right balance.

Video footage of the crater lake here.

Selected sources.