Aerial view of White Island on December 08, 2020 off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand.

White Island, also called Whakaari, is one of New Zealand’s most active volcanos.Credit: Phil Walter/Getty

Volcanologists have applauded a judges’ decision to dismiss one of two criminal charges against New Zealand’s Earth-science research agency, GNS Science. The charges were laid in the wake of a fatal 2019 volcanic eruption on Whakaari White Island, a popular tourist destination, that killed 22 people and injured 25 others.

GNS Science issues volcanic alert bulletins for the country’s active volcanoes, which are disseminated to the media, emergency-response agencies and to the public through a service called GeoNet. The dismissed charge alleged that GNS Science should have coordinated with tour operators and other agencies and reviewed its volcanic alert bulletins to ensure they effectively communicated the implications of volcanic activity on Whakaari White Island.

With the charge dismissed, scientific organizations that provide information on public health and safety risks can now “breathe a bit of a sigh of relief”, says Simon Connell, a lawyer and specialist in accident law at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The legal reprieve comes after a judge dismissed a similar case against the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in May, because its workplace health and safety obligations do not extend to the tourists and tour operators harmed in the eruption. The ruling did not consider whether NEMA had done its job properly.

That decision significantly weakened the case against GNS Science. And on 6 October, WorkSafe New Zealand, the country’s workplace health and safety regulator, consented to the agency’s application to have the charge dismissed.

The regulator has also charged GNS Science with having failed to ensure the health and safety of helicopter pilots that it hired to take its employees to the island. This charge will go to trial, and carries a penalty of a fine of up to NZ$1.5 million (US$844,000). GNS Science has pleaded not guilty.

Better systems needed

GNS Science publishes bulletins that contain observations about volcanic activity and include the volcanic alert level on a scale from 0 to 5. Three weeks before the eruption on 9 December 2019, the agency raised the alert level from 1 to 2, indicating increased activity and hazards on Whakaari White Island. Two more bulletins before the eruption detailed information about mud and gas emissions, changes to water levels in the crater lake and increased seismic activity. Volcanic eruptions occur at alert level 3 and above.

Raymond Cas, a volcanologist at Monash University in Clayton, Australia, says that the decision to dismiss the charge makes sense, because GNS Science “called the shots correctly” in the lead-up to the eruption. The agency’s volcanic-alert bulletins “clearly indicate, when you get to [alert level] two, there is the potential there for eruption hazards”, he says.

Volcanic eruptions cannot be accurately predicted, so volcanologists are working with social scientists on ways to better communicate that uncertainty and the risks to the public, says Martha Savage, a geophysicist at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Cas says that regulations that automatically trigger exclusion zones when alert levels rise above a certain point could also prevent future tragedies. In Japan, for instance, volcanic warnings issued by the national meteorological agency include measures that people in the vicinity must take, including evacuation. In New Zealand, “there is no regulatory requirement to immediately declare a no-go zone to the volcano,” says Cas, “which we could argue is a weakness in that system”.

Equipment down

GNS Science is currently unable to accurately monitor volcanic activity on Whakaari White Island. The agency has not sent anyone to the island since before the 2019 eruption, and equipment that monitors seismic activity in real time has gradually failed.

Savage says that the loss of working equipment is a setback for research that could assist in foretelling future eruptions.

GNS Science says that it is “actively working on a plan to return to Whakaari safely to repair the on-island monitoring equipment”.

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