Volcanoes aren’t a good tourist destination. This became clear as early as 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted at Pompeii, which is where today’s City of Naples, Italy is located. The tragedy at White Island, New Zealand, has claimed 16 lives so far, and sent more than two dozen people to the hospital, some with horrific injuries. The obvious question is: Why did local companies advertise visits to Whakaari Volcano and guide tours into an active crater? It could be that many tourists were misled by images of other eruptions.
From May to July of 2018, Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii sent streams of lava into Leilani Estates. Videos show the molten rock advancing slowly across streets and buildings. Tourists took selfies in front of the dark, hot mass, easily stepping away as it overran parked cars. One picture showed people calmly playing golf in front of erupting steam and ash. Although 600 families lost their homes, no deaths were reported.
While credit is due to agencies like the U.S. Geological Survey and first responders, it’s important to know the difference between two major types of volcanoes and their eruptions. The Hawaiian ones, including Kilauea, Mauna Loa and others, are of the basaltic type. Their lava has low viscosity, which means it flows easily. Kilauea has long been known for the rivers of hot and liquid lava that it puts out. Much of the Hawaiian landscape bears witness to the flows with hollow tubes of basalt and hills made of both the Aa (blocky) and Pahoehoe (smooth) lava types.
The killer volcanoes tend to be of the andesitic type, also known as stratovolcanoes. Instead of having a shape that spreads across hundreds of square miles, they are the stereotypical cones. They’ve made history in Pompeii, but also in the U.S. State of Washington (Mt. St. Helens), Guatemala (where Fuego erupted in 2018, killing 165 and more than 200 missing), or Colombia, where Nevado Del Ruiz killed 23,000 in 1985. Stratovolcanoes are unpredictable. They tend to be located where the edges of tectonic plates grind against each other.
Usually, an earthquake serves to open up old or new vents, and gigantic explosions occur. Their power is dozens of times stronger than atomic bombs. Whakaari is such a volcano. As we mourn the victims of this latest eruption, nature once again teaches a painful lesson.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.