Daily Earth Science Geosphere Repost

Disaster on White island

The year was 1978, and I was an undergraduate in the Environmental Sciences program at the University of Virginia. Professor Grant Goodell had just returned from a convention on the U.S. West Coast. A small group of students listened while he discussed the field trip he took to Mount St. Helens in Skamania County, Washington. 

“You could see cracks in the soil cover on parts of the upper slopes. Steam was rising from some of them. I couldn’t pay much attention to the field lecturer, because the only thing I could think about was that I wanted to get the hell off that mountain.”

Professor Goodell was not faint of heart. He was a Navy aviator during the Korean War and received a Purple Heart for his service. However, he was a keen judge of risk, and he knew when the risk outweighed the reward. Volcano tourism is not always a reward that is equal to the risk.

On May 18, 1980, the north side of Mount Saint Helens, already weakened from the stress of internal pressures, disintegrated into the most massive landslide ever recorded.  As gravity pulled the mountainside down, it relieved the overburden of rock that was keeping the magma chamber in check. Then, as the volcano erupted, hot volcanic gases and ash rose 80,000 feet into the air. Entire glaciers on the mountain slope melted and mixed with the ash to form lahars (volcanic mudslides). These lahars raced down the slopes and reached the Columbia River nearly 50 miles to the southwest. A total of 57 people died in that event.

White Island

Flash forward to December 8, 2019, and the White Island volcano in New Zealand erupts, killing at least five people and injuring 18. Ten people are still unaccounted for at the time of this writing. The dead and injured were tourists, some of whom were part of a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line tour.

The White Island volcano is a stratovolcano off the North coast of New Zealand. It is the most active volcano in the country, and it has been active for the past 150,000 years. A stratovolcano is also called a composite volcano. These volcanoes are conical and build through frequent eruptions, with each eruption depositing another layer of lava and ash on the flanks of the growing mountain.

The words “currently active” and “frequent eruptions” are tip-offs that should translate to “risky.” A volcano is only dangerous if people are around it. Since White Island is a tourist destination, the term “most active” can be translated to “most dangerous.” If you are a tourist walking on top of White Island, it is not just the most dangerous volcano in New Zealand. Because, for you, it is the most dangerous volcano in the world.

Grant Goodell’s instincts were right. The risk posed by this kind of tourism is greater than the reward. So don’t be lured into thinking that mother nature is always warm and cuddly. Each of us must use our own instincts and observations to make decisions, and not just use the assessments of a for-profit tour operator.


Washington: home to dangerous volcanoes (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2019/12/12/washington-home-to-dangerous-volcano/

Volcanic tsunamis (Source: ArcheanWeb) – https://archeanweb.com/2020/01/13/volcanic-tsunamis/


Feature Photo: Kimberley Collins – This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en Also:

H. Grant Goodell – https://www.earth.northwestern.edu/our-people/alumni/alumni-profiles/h-grant-goodell.html Also:

Volcano eruption on New Zealand’s White Island leaves at least five dead – https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/08/asia/new-zealand-white-island-eruption-intl-hnk/index.html

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.