Netflix’s new documentary on the Whakaari eruption

The new documentary The Volcano: Whakaari Rescue is a heartbreaking look at the phreatic eruption of Whakaari on White Island off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island on December 9, 2019. The island is an active stratovolcano, continuously releasing gas volcanic since its discovery in 1769, and is a popular tourist destination.

At the time of the eruption, 47 people were on the island and 22 died from the explosion or their injuries. two of the 22 were never found and were later pronounced dead.

Beyond the trauma and courage of survivors and the disturbing audio and phone footage of survivors in the film, there is an undercurrent of detachment from tour operators and tourists’ decisions to visit Whakaari/White Island during a level two volcanic alert. A Level Two Volcanic Alert means moderate to intensified volcanic unrest with potential risk of an eruption.

The Whakaari/White Island eruption was a ash plum and pyroclastic flare that affected the entire crater area. Pyroclastic flows killed the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79.

Pyroclastic flows are a high-density mixture of hot lava blocks, stone pumice, ash and volcanic gas. .

“They move at very high speeds up volcanic slopes, usually following valleys, but can have so much energy that they can sometimes climb,” Lopes said. “Pyroclastic flows are the deadliest thing a volcano can unleash, and it’s nearly impossible to escape.”

“Temperatures inside a pyroclastic flow are high – typically between 200°C and 700°C (390-1300°F),” Lopes said. “For humans caught in one, it’s a horrible way to die.”

Lopes says pyroclastic flows can be very destructive to the environment as they can start fires, melt snow and ice, destroy buildings and cover everything in ash and rock.

Science and education

Lopes says the film shows the human experience of the eruption, but science can play a role in education.

“It is important for people to know that there are different types of volcanoes; some are safe to visit even while erupting, such as the volcanoes in Iceland and Hawaii which mostly have mild eruptions with lava flows. of lava, while other volcanoes – and Whakaari is one – can be very deadly if they erupt,” Lopes said.

Lopes is the author of The Volcanic Adventure Guideand she encourages people to visit volcanoes, but they should know the risks before they go.

“Hawaiian and Icelandic type volcanoes have beautiful, very photogenic eruptions, but explosive volcanoes are a different beast,” Lopes said. “I visited Whakaari in 2016, and I was [..] surprised that tourists are brought there regularly; we knew it was potentially dangerous.”

“I think some tourists just didn’t know about the risks,” Lopes said.

“Even though we know a lot about volcanoes, they are still difficult to predict with certainty,” Lopes said. “There are different types of volcanoes, and for the most part they give warning signs if they are going to erupt.”

But Lopes says we’re talking about major eruptions, not sudden explosions like the Whakaari eruption. “Eruptions usually have warning signs, for example an increase in seismic activity, and some volcanoes are doing quite well, that is, they are showing signs that they are going to erupt and we can evacuate the people on time,” Lopes said. “But what happened in Whakaari was a sudden explosion, which is very difficult to predict.”

Statistically speaking, Lopes says volcanic activity has remained the same over the past three years. “There have been a few eruptions that have grabbed headlines, and volcanic activity is often very photogenic, so photos tend to circulate on social media,” Lopes said.

“But, a very large eruption — we’re talking about a rare, large explosive eruption — can affect the climate, lowering average global temperatures,” Lopes said. “These large eruptions can inject huge amounts of volcanic gas, aerosol droplets and ash into the stratosphere.”

“Sulfur dioxide can cause global cooling because it forms fine sulfate aerosols. The aerosols increase the reflection of radiation from the Sun back to space, cooling Earth’s lower atmosphere,” Lopes said.

Lopes says the effects only last a few years, large eruptions like this are rare, and a drop in temperature is small. “For example, the Pinatubo eruption in 1991 caused cooling of up to 1.3 degrees Farheneight for the next three years. Lopes adds that other eruptions that caused a climatic effect were Krakatau in 1883 and Tambora. in 1815.

But Lopes says volcanologists have many ways to monitor volcanoes.

“Volcanologists work to understand and interpret the signs of an impending eruption using a wide variety of information, from seismic activity to analysis of the gases a volcano gives off,” Lopes said. “The changes can be a precursor to an eruption. There are many techniques, seismic arrays being a major one.”

According to Lopes, monitoring volcanoes involves frequent measurements of various volcanic phenomena, including earthquakes, ground motions, chemical compositions of gases emitted from the volcano, and changes in local electric, magnetic, and gravity fields, as well as than the ground temperature. . “Most measurements are made locally on the volcano, but others can be made remotely by aircraft or even by satellites in Earth orbit.”

“Remote sensing techniques have the advantage of allowing monitoring of very isolated or otherwise inaccessible areas where ground-based monitoring might be too expensive or difficult to do,” Lopes said.

Lopes says one of the difficulties with monitoring is that some of the signs thought to be precursors to eruption on one volcano may not occur at all on another. “The problem with White Island (Whakaari) is that there was an unexpected phreatic explosion – a sudden release of steam and volcanic gases which caused an explosion, throwing rocks and ash into the air, and this guy sudden explosion is very difficult to predict.”

“Although during the month preceding this explosion there was an increase in the level of background activity on the volcano, with occasional gas and mud being ejected from the crater, it was not possible to say that ‘a sudden explosion was going to happen,” Lopes said. “However, each eruption, each explosion gives us more data, and volcanologists understand the signs better.”

Following the eruption on Whakaari/White Island, WorkSafe New Zealand filed suit against tour operators, government and scientific agencies for failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and others under the occupational health and safety law.

The island has been closed to visitors since the 2019 eruption, but on December 16, 2022, the families of the victims were allowed to return to the island for a memorial.

The Volcano: Whakaari Rescue is streaming on Netflix. Executive producers are Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Leonardo Dicaprio, Jennifer Davisson and Phillip Watson. Oscar-nominated director Rory Kennedy is directing the film.

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