New Zealand volcano is on the Pacific Ring of Fire

Here’s information about New Zealand’s White Island volcano – which erupted on Monday, December 9 – in the context of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Erupting volcano.

Around 50 people – mostly tourists – were on White Island when the volcano erupted on Monday afternoon, December 9, 2019. Many remain unaccounted for at this writing. The eruption began at around 2:11 p.m., local time. Image via NewsHubNewZealand.

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.

Read more: 5 dead, many more missing in eruption of New Zealand volcano

Read more: Eyewitness Twitter thread about the White Island eruption

Read more: Discussion thread about White Island eruption

Information about the volcano and its tragic aftermath is still coming out, but the tweet below – from volcanologist Jess Phoenix – has more about it.

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.

Map of Earth with thick red line surrounding the Pacific Ocean.

Many volcanoes on Earth are located around the Pacific Ring of Fire. Image via U.S. Geological Survey.

Diagram with top layers of Earth - lithosphere and asthenosphere.

Image of an oceanic plate being subducted under a continental plate. Image via U.S. Geological Survey.

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.

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.

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Deanna Conners