In December 2019, at least five people were killed, and eight others went missing after a deadly volcanic eruption on White Island in New Zealand. Police said that both locals and tourists had been caught up in the disaster.

New Zealand's White Island or Whakaari volcano is the country's most active volcano, according to the GeoNet website. It has been built up by more than 150,000 volcanic activities. Experts said the casualties of last year's volcanic activity might have been prevented if only they predicted its eruption. "Had our system been in place [on Whakaari last year] it would have raised the alert 16 hours before the volcano's deadly eruption," they said.

Now, scientists from New Zealand claim that they have invented a warning system that can predict these events to prevent future tragedies such as the blast last year. They published their research in Nature Communications this week.

Analyzing previous data

David Dempsey and Shane Cronin from the University of Auckland said that their research "shows patterns of seismic activity before an eruption that make advance warning possible."

Currently, New Zealand is being served by a series of monitoring instruments operated by GNS Science that measure Earth movements as well as tremors. This system reports data on the country's thousands of earthquakes, and volcanic events each year as they happen. However, they do not predict volcanic eruptions.

In an attempt to address this, Dempsey and Cronin applied previous eruption data to "machine learning algorithms" which allow them to find patterns in the build-up to eruptions.

For instance, the authors wrote, the eruption that happened last year was preceded by 17 hours of seismic warning. It began with a strong four-hour burst of seismic activity that the researchers think was the fresh magmatic fluid that was starting to rise, adding pressure to the gas and water trapped in the rock above.

"This led to its eventual bursting, like a pressure cooker lid being blasted off," the researchers said.

Moreover, a similar signal was also recorded 30 hours before the eruption in August 2013, as well as in two other explosions that happened in 2012, although it was less obvious.

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New Zealand Invented System That Predicts Volcanic Eruptions
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
White Island, New Zealand, from the air

New Zealand's volcano warning system

The researchers said they hope that the data they gathered can be applied to other volcanoes like the Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapeh, although they admitted it is not fool-proof.

According to the two researchers, the system would only have raised an alert in four out of five major eruptions of White Island. But they think that their system can detect explosions like the one in 2019 or even larger than that.

They said that if the alerts are used, the island will be off-limits for almost a month every year.

They are now working with GNS Science to make their system operational. Additionally, the scientists have made their data and software open-source so others can use it in hopes of improving the tool.

Since the tragedy on December 2019, tourist visits have ceased on White Island, around 50 kilometers off Whakatane, New Zealand.

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