Okay. Ooooooohhhkay. I’m going to try and walk you guys through today without sounding too much like a crazy person. Today the Tephra Team went to White Island or as it is known to the Maori: Whakaari. It is an island roughly 45km off the coast of New Zealand out in the Bay of Plenty. It is also New Zealand’s most active volcano, and has ongoing fumarole activity present throughout the island. Fumaroles are surface expressions of an active volcanic system beneath the surface of the earth and are usually observed in the form of bubbling mud pots, boiling liquid (some water-acid concoction usually of extremely of low pH), and gas emissions. It also erupts quite frequently in the form of explosive andesite eruptions and has killed miners who lived there in the early 1900s.
A quick crash course on volcanic gases:
Gases associated with volcanoes can be a multitude of things, but are usually water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and sulfur dioxide (SO2). The source of these gasses can be either from the magma or incorporated from the surrounding rock as the magma propagates through the earth’s crust. Water and carbon dioxide are pretty harmless for the most part, unless at extremely high temperatures (which can happen frequently in fumaroles when the magma is > 700 degrees Celsius), but hydrogen sulfide can be pretty nasty. It is quite irritating to the throat and eyes, causing a burning sensation in both, and in a liquid state can form sulfuric acid (this is an oversimplification of some chemical reactions, but moral of the story, the stuff is bad) that will dissolve just about anything you’re wearing or carrying…including you if you sit in it long enough.
Now that we’ve established that there can be some nasties around active volcanoes on top of the whole “they go boom” thing, we will continue on our journey. The day started out quite rainy and was looking pretty choppy out on the water. Good thing we all brought our boots inside overnight this time so they remained dry. Anyway, we continued on to the place that gave the tours, confirmed that we knew the risks of traveling to an active volcano, boarded the boat, and were off. Turns out our observation of the water being quite choppy was incredibly accurate. We would later learn that they don’t usually go out on the water when it is this rough, but because some of the people on the tour were only in town for one day the company didn’t want to have them miss out on the experience, and so out we went!
Once we got out into the Bay of Plenty we were able to feel the full force of the waves on the catamaran style boat. Catamarans feel waves more than more traditional styles of vessels and this exacerbated every single up and down. Now, some of us on the trip are not exactly fond of this type of motion repeated over and over again for two hours. Call it motion sickness, call it sea sickness, call it whatever you want, but it all usually ends up with you tasting your breakfast twice. Fortunately, we only had a couple of casualties in that regard, and I was not one of them. A little advice for those of you heading out onto open water and looking to calm the nausea: focus on the horizon or island if you have one and concentrate on your breathing. The focusing on a stable landmark helps your body get its bearings. If you do these things it will not be as bad. After about two hours or bouncing around we finally made it to Whakaari! By this point the wind had died down and the sun was shining. I guess the Maori gods were just toying with us and making us earn the right to step foot on their island.
The first thing you will notice when stepping on the island is the smell. Sulfur in its native form is odorless and tasteless, but when in the form of hydrogen sulfide, it is most definitely not. The smell of rotten eggs filled our nostrils, we were given gas masks and hard hats, hopped on shore, and were off! Shades of various yellows, reds, browns, and greys covered the landscape and it was unlike anything I have ever seen. Honestly, it looked like we were transported to another planet. But that’s the beautiful thing about the earth: just as soon as you think you’ve seen all there is to see, it throws something at you that will make your head spin. Stopping along the way to ogle at various sulfur mineralization, volcanic bombs, landslide debris, and air fall deposits, our heads seem to be on a well lubricated swivel. Picture snapping, video taking, and science talking our way to the main event, we finally reached the center of the island: the youngest vent and remnants of the caldera lake. This is where all of the recent eruptions originated and launched literal tons of volcanic ejecta. Some of these ejecta (we call them bombs) were as big as a small car, some were as small as a softball, but they were everywhere. One would not want to be around when this thing blows its top. Even with a hard hat, these projectiles are traveling as fast as a bullet and are hundreds of degrees Celsius, so your odds of survival are not that great. If you do find yourself experiencing one of these and are in the immediate vicinity…best not to look down. Look up, look for bombs, hopefully dodge them, and get to some shelter!
Up here at the crater there were A LOT of gasses being emitted from various vents around a small water/acid lake and when the wind was jussssssst right we got a nice whiff of the sulfuric gases that subsequently burned our throats and eyes. It was then that we were thankful for our gas masks and sunglasses to block out the nasties.
Post gawking over the central vent we made our way down through some landslide deposits associated with eruptions and observed the old mining operation that was present in the early 1900s. Because of the native sulfur deposits, mining was implemented on the island for a couple decades in early the twentieth century with the aim of using it for use in fertilizer. In theory, this seemed like a simple “smash and grab” operation, however there are a few problems with mining on an active volcano, namely it is an ACTIVE volcano. They go boom occasionally. Also, because of the acidic nature of the gases, the metals used in buildings oxidize and weather extremely fast. All of the buildings have since fallen apart and the metal used looked like it had been there for ten times as long as it has actually been present. After a couple of eruptions, landslides, and deaths of dozens of workers, mining ceased to exist in the area and all that’s left are the remnants of the buildings used to process the sulfur and house the miners. Shockingly, it seems as if the wood used as structural supports holds up exponentially better than the metal in this case because it is not affected as much by the acidic clouds that frequently dominate the island.
Shortly after viewing the demise of human presence on Whakaari, we boarded the boat back to Whakatane and had some lunch. This was my first experience with a savory muffin and let me tell you…I would totally endulge again. It is very much like a quiche and quite delightful! The ride back was much smoother for a couple of reasons: we were heading in the same directions as the waves, the waves seemed to have died down, and we were giddy on volcano things. No barfing this time around!
Upon returning to shore a bunch of us hit the gift shop, I mailed a post card, and we headed to…you guessed it…BLUEBERRY CORNER! It was time to make a great day better with some fresh fruit ice cream! Rough life we lead. It’ll soon be time for some fish n’ chips and nightly science discussion.
Today was a good day.