Commentary

The natural world is not a safe place

January 17, 2023 6:25 am

Paul Doscher and his wife, Deb, visited Whaakari, off the north coast of New Zealand, about a year before the December 2019 eruption. (Courtesy of Paul Doscher)

Most people likely believe the natural world they live in is a safe place.

Certainly, it’s a less dangerous place for humans than it was thousands of years ago when predators, diseases, infant mortality, and natural disasters meant average human life spans were measured in a just a few decades. Today in developed nations we have a largely safe food system, mostly clean water to drink, technology that is designed to prevent silly mistakes from injuring or killing us, and information that advises us about how to avoid natural dangers all around us. Thankfully, our incredible scientific advancements have also helped us survive a worldwide pandemic that didn’t repeat the scale of the catastrophe of the 1918 flu pandemic.

But every once in a while, I’m reminded that the natural world is really not a safe place. The reminder this time was watching a documentary on Netflix titled “Volcano.” It’s a true story with horrifying audio and video of the December 2019 eruption of the volcano on Whaakari/White Island off the north coast of New Zealand.

About one year before the eruption, my wife, Deb, and I visited Whaakari.  

At that time, the volcanic alert (from the New Zealand GeoNet service) was at Level 1, or “minor unrest.” We assumed, perhaps naively, that meant it was clearly safe to travel the 90 minutes by boat to the island and take the roughly hour-long walking tour of the island. And, of course, that was the case. Among our tour guides were a young woman named Kelsey (that we remembered easily as our daughter shares that name) and a very impressive guide named Hayden. They were highly professional and gave us very specific instructions about where to walk and not to walk. They outfitted us with helmets and respirators and led us through a totally unfamiliar landscape of steam, sulfurous gases, volcanic rock, and mineral-colored streams. Their knowledge of the geologic processes that created the island and the history of human activity was impressive. It was one of the most memorable and fascinating adventures I’ve ever experienced.  

The entire trip was very professionally operated, and that day there were no incidents or injuries.

It was easy, then, to forget that the earth is surrounded by a thin mantle of land and sea under which is a core of molten rock that is always shifting and in many places ready to burst through the thin layer that supports all life on the planet.

Nearly a year later, another group of curious tourists took the same boat ride to Whaakari. This time the alert level was 2 (on a scale of 1 to 4, with Level 3 signifying that an eruption is immediately anticipated) and the outcome was disastrous. There were three groups on the island, two that arrived in boats and one by helicopter. All were caught in an unexpected eruption with an ash plume that rose 12,000 feet into the air. Forty-seven people were on the island at the time. The film “Volcano” contains the stories of a few who survived the ordeal that followed. In all, 22 people died either on the island or from burns sustained from the steam and hot rock explosion of the eruption. Our guide Hayden was among those who perished. Our other guide, Kelsey, survived and is one of those who tell their story to the filmmakers.

After watching the film, my wife and I looked at each other in silence. I know we were both wondering why we had thought it was a good idea to visit an active volcano. 

Since the eruption, Whaakari has been off limits to all visitors. The GeoNet service has revised its alert system to six levels, presumably to provide better guidance for visitors to the other volcanic zones on the North Island of the country. But it is never wise to assume that the earth is a safe place. No amount of technology or human ingenuity can protect life on the planet from the reality that the earth is an ever-changing and perilous place.

Here in New England, we have no volcanoes to worry about. Earthquakes are very rare and in the past couple hundred years have never been dramatically damaging. We don’t have the kind of climate that is susceptible to the wildfires that ravage the American West. Hurricanes come once in a while, but not like they do in the Gulf States and Caribbean.  

It seems a safer place here than in many other parts of the world. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps I’m a bit naïve.

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Paul Doscher
Paul Doscher

Paul Doscher is a former environmental science professor and retired conservation professional. He and his wife live on and manage a Certified Tree Farm in Weare.

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