The volcano that erupted today (December 9, 2019) on White Island – which sits about 30 miles (50 km) offshore from mainland New Zealand – is one of a long chain of volcanos in what’s called the Ring of Fire. These volcanoes and other tectonically active structures surround the Pacific Ocean. The chain runs up along the western coast of South and North America, crosses over the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, runs down the eastern coast of Asia past New Zealand and into the northern coast of Antarctica. The Ring of Fire is one of the most geologically active areas on Earth, and is a site for frequent earthquakes and powerful volcanic eruptions.
Information about the volcano and its tragic aftermath is still coming out, but the tweet below – from volcanologist Jess Phoenix – has more about it.
Here's a little bit of info about the #WhiteIsland #volcano eruption. Please look to @geonet & @USGSVolcanoes for accurate information. The imagery on social media can be scary, but this is a relatively small (yet deadly) eruption. At least 5 people are now reported to have died. pic.twitter.com/uB7ORsMozK
— Jess Phoenix ? (@jessphoenix2018) December 9, 2019
— USGS Volcanoes? (@USGSVolcanoes) December 9, 2019
The New Zealand volcano is one of more than 450 active and dormant volcanoes located within the Ring of Fire. Many of these volcanoes were created through the tectonic process of subduction whereby dense ocean plates collide with and slide under lighter continental plates.
The material from the ocean floor melts as it enters the Earth’s interior and then rises to the nearby surface as magma.
GeoNet said the White Island volcano is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. About 70% of the volcano lies beneath the sea surface. It has erupted frequently over the last 50 years, most recently in 2016.
Geoff Kilgour, duty volcanologist at GeoNet, said there’ve been no signs the White Island volcano will escalate in intensity today or tomorrow. He wrote:
We have seen a steady decline in activity since the eruption. There remains significant uncertainty as to future changes but currently, there are no signs of escalation.
White Island is also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari, which means “that which can be made visible.” The name probably referred to the way the island disappeared and reappeared from behind plumes of volcanic smoke and steam.
Now is a good time to note that #Whakaari is the Maori name for #WhiteIsland. The full name in Maori is "Te Puia o Whakaari," meaning "The Dramatic Volcano." White Island is Captain Cook's name for it.
— Jess Phoenix ? (@jessphoenix2018) December 9, 2019
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt
— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Other noteworthy volcanoes that dot the Ring of Fire include Mount St. Helens in the USA, Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. There are about 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide, aside from the continuous belts of volcanoes on the ocean floor at spreading centers like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. About 500 of those 1,500 volcanoes have erupted in historical time. Many of those are located along the Pacific Rim in the Ring of Fire.
The majority of Earth’s earthquakes occur in the Ring of Fire, too. These earthquakes are caused by the sudden lateral or vertical movement of rock along plate margins. About 81% of the world’s largest earthquakes have occurred along the Ring of Fire. The largest earthquake ever recorded on Earth was a 9.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Chile on May 22, 1960. Other noteworthy earthquakes that have occurred along the Ring of Fire include a 9.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 28, 1964, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004, and a 9.0 earthquake that struck near the coast of Honshu, Japan, on March 11, 2011.
Deep ocean trenches are another common feature of the Ring of Fire. These trenches form along subduction zones where slabs of the ocean floor slide into the Earth. The deepest part of the ocean on Earth, the Mariana Trench, is located along the Ring of Fire in the western portion of the Pacific Ocean Basin.
Despite the high levels of volcanic and seismic activity, millions of people live among the breathtaking landscapes of the Ring of Fire. Scientists are currently working with government officials to help nations in the region improve their response to natural disasters and build their resiliency.
— EL CÍRCULO ? (@CirculoGloBal_I) December 9, 2019
Bottom line: The White Island volcano in New Zealand on December 9, 2019, took place along the Pacific Ring of Fire. Approximately 90% of the most powerful volcanic eruptions and about 81% of the world’s largest earthquakes have occurred along the Ring of Fire.
Deanna Conners is an Environmental Scientist who holds a Ph.D. in Toxicology and an M.S. in Environmental Studies. Her interest in toxicology stems from having grown up near the Love Canal Superfund Site in New York. Her current work is to provide high-quality scientific information to the public and decision-makers and to help build cross-disciplinary partnerships that help solve environmental problems. She writes about Earth science and nature conservation for EarthSky.