Scientists are making tentative plans to set foot onto Whakaari / White Island again to reinstall monitoring equipment.
Sensors and cameras have stopped transmitting vital data, because no one’s been allowed to service them since the volcano erupted in 2019.
Twenty-two people died from horrific burn and blast injuries, and dozens of others were injured.
But with the WorkSafe court case about to hand down sentences, the owners of the island – the Buttle family – are reluctant to let anyone go back.
When the eruption engulfed Whakaari three years ago, GNS scientists immediately had crucial information transmitted from the island that helped search and rescue, and body recovery efforts.
But the technology has been severely damaged by corrosion in the highly acidic and exposed environment, and batteries have died.
GNS principal scientist Graham Leonard told 1News: “By 2022, we’d lost a lot of equipment and by the end of the year pretty much everything was not transmitting anymore.”
GNS cameras send images around the clock from our most active volcanoes, but there has been no working cameras on Whakaari since 2022.
Vital data missing
Scientists are having to rely on views of the island from 50 kilometres away, via a camera on the Bay of Plenty coastline, and doing sporadic trips flying over the island for extra monitoring.
But in the years before the 2019 eruption, they had constant measurements of ground shaking, sounds, temperatures and gases on the island, which are needed to help keep people safe on boats nearby and on the mainland where ash could fall.
MetService would also rely on this data to forecast ash clouds – a huge threat to planes.
The meteorological service’s head of weather communications, Lisa Murray, told 1News “ash can be very corrosive and abrasive to both aircraft engines and the air frame”.
It can also impact planes’ instruments and visibility, she said.
In recent months, scientists have been working out how they might replace their broken technology around the crater, with as many safety protections as possible.
Leonard said while they were initially considering getting back onto the crater within “the first two or three years” following the eruption, the equipment is “really shot now and also obsolete”.
“We would need to do a complete reinstall of the system out there… dropping something there might be less than an hour and even building stations – a matter of hours.”
The Buttle brothers have to give permission for anyone to land on the island.
But the company owned by the family – and GNS – are among six parties to be sentenced later this month, for health and safety breaches linked to visits to Whakaari in the years before the devastating eruption.
GNS has requested permission to land on the island but the brothers have told 1News via their lawyer: “The implications of the (Whakaari Management Limited) judgement for landowners means there is an awful lot that would need to occur and be considered before any party could be permitted to access the island. So sadly, GNS has to be denied permission to access at this point in time.”
The brothers noted that GNS “has a long-standing and really good relationship with the Buttle family”.
“The family support and have always supported the scientific work that GNS does and has done.”
University of Canterbury disaster risk expert Professor Tom Wilson said it was “a tragically complex situation where we’re in the aftermath of a disaster”.
“There’s the potential that it [Whakaari] could erupt with very little, if any, useful warning, so any return to the island to install seismic or volcano monitoring equipment – or whatever it might be – does have inherent risks.”
The sentencing for WorkSafe prosecutions will take place on February 26 in Auckland.
Other parties waiting to be sentenced later this month are White Island Tours, that had 38 tourists and four guides on the island and had come by boat; helicopter company Volcanic Air, that had one pilot and four tourists on the island at the time; and tour companies Kāhu helicopter service, Inflite Charters, and Aerius Limited.