Rangitoto Island; Auckland’s newest and largest volcano. image: Su Leslie 2019
It’s just over 24 hours since the sudden volcanic eruption of Whakaari/White Island off New Zealand’s east coast left at least five people dead, 31 injured and eight more missing.
Volcanic activity is weirdly compelling to watch. Visitors have flocked to geologically active places since tourism began, and despite frequent eruptions and a perpetual, slightly toxic, steam cloud, Whakaari/White Island had become a major tourist attraction.
As I walk on a beach studded with the jagged remains of old lava flows, beneath one volcanic cone and within sight of several others, I’m conscious of how much of New Zealand’s topography has been (and continues to be) formed by volcanic activity.
Some volcanic fields, like that on which Auckland lies, tend to have single eruptions on specific sites within the field. Others, like Whakaari and the mountains of the central North Island are polygenetic, erupting multiple times with varying frequency and intensity.
No matter how much our rational brains understand this, yesterday’s tragedy is a somber reminder of how thin the crust we walk on really is.