Too many tourists in Tonga

Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'apai, taken in late March 2009

Redoubt did the tried-and-true American trick of shoving news of volcanoes in other parts of the world off the news pages, but shockingly, these international volcanoes continued to erupt. Remember that volcano in Tonga? Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha'aapi? Still erupting, weeks after the volcano was first spotted. The volcano is still disrupting air traffic in and out of Tonga, which is now even affecting the economy of the islands. Now, the problem is that tourists are creeping ever closer to the emerging volcanic island. The thing about visiting nascent volcanic islands, beyond the fact that it is an erupting volcano is that the islands are inherently unstable, so looks like a stable platform could collapse easily, especially if it is constructed of piles of loosely consolidated volcanic tephra/debris.

In Tonga, the new island being constructed has grown quickly. When the eruption began on March 17, the vents were underwater, but now all vents are "on land" constructed by the eruptions (see the image above). This might look like a great place to explore, but again, it is an erupting volcano. There are reports that groups have "climbed up to the fragile rim of its volcanic crater, where there is a steaming sulphuric orange lake," which in the grand scheme of things isn't too bright of a thing to do. Additional groups, including a cameraman from the Discovery Channel, have landed on the island as well. Ten points for the good shot, but minus several million for clear thinking. As with almost anything new, people want to make some money off of it, but playing on an actively erupting volcano is just inviting danger, even for volcanologists.

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So true, it's like those idiots who climbed into the Chaiten caldera early this year (not long before the dome collapse).. I mean I like dangerous sports too but that's way over my threshold. Stupidity like this can only be born of ignorance - as though they think they'd have enough time to run away or jump on a boat or something. doh.

BTW I love the way you write! Right up my alley.

What, only professional volcanologists get to risk dying in pyroclastic flows? Let 'em snoop around all they want. If the survive, they have the story of a lifetime. If not, no great loss.

By bob loblaw (not verified) on 03 Apr 2009 #permalink

I am surprised at the timidity of the volcanophiles posting here. Yes it is risky to visit the new island at Tonga but how amazing an experience it must be. On the other hand, some people are simply ignorant about volcanoes and take foolish risks they probably wouldn't take if they really knew what they were doing. For example, I've seen people approach vents on Stromboli that erupted every half an hour. They were fooled by the lull in activity between explosions and barely survived.

Plenty of people and not enough good video. Let 'em go and get us some. I'm a libertarian when it comes to climbing volcanoes. It's not like they don't have some idea of the risk.

The point here isn't whether volcanologists should be allowed to do this and tourists not. The question here is should we allow people to do things that are known to be dangerous, even if there is a chance that they won't be hurt. The libertarian in me says "sure!" and then proceeds to play in traffic and get hit by a car. The nanny in me says "no!" and then proceeds to beaten by the throngs I was trying to protect. There is no easy answer, however, we need to make sure the people who take part is such activity are clearly and plainly aware of the dangers and understand what they are undertaking. Most of these operations do not strike me as such endeavors.

The problem with danger tourism is that also innocent people will be in danger. The local poor people, lured by the money of the tourists, who transport them on the site, and the rescue crews that bring them back when something goes wrong.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 03 Apr 2009 #permalink

The Mt. Redoubt alert level is currently WARNING and aviation color code is RED.

At 06:00 AKDT there was a significant explosive event at Redoubt. An ash cloud has reached at least 50,000 feet above sea level and is heading SE. The National Weather Service has issued an ash advisory lasting to 10am AKDT for areas from south of Ninilchik.

Lightning was observed in the eruption cloud and
AVO seismometers indicate a lahar in the Drift River Valley.

Strong, but diminishing seismic activity is continuing as of 07:35 AKDT.

Allowing people to go on active volcanoes (which are always potentially dangerous when they're erupting) or not is a very philosophical question. Here at our Italian volcanoes the practice in recent years has been to simply block all access once the situation is considered more dangerous, and basta. Often this seemed quite exaggerated, especially if such restrictions remained for months after a crisis had ended. At the same time people are allowed to do all sorts of other dangerous things (except smoking, which recently has been discovered to be tremendously dangerous but so far remains the single one thing - except erupting volcanoes - that they want to protect us from). Like: driving cars, motor cycles and all sorts of vehicles. Like: drinking a lot of alcohol, not forbidden. Like: climbing mountains (not volcanoes), although dozens of people die in mountain accidents and snow avalanches etcetera every year in the Alps alone. Like: taking a shower or a bath in our own private bathtub at home, where we might slip and break our skulls. Like: climbing a ladder, still at home, to change a light bulb. So all this good will to save our lives in my opinion comes across with quite a dose of hypocrisy. I think the best thing would be to inform people as much as possible in visitor centers and then let them decide. Like showing the people living at Pinatubo and wouldn't evacuate prior to the 1991 eruption the Volcanic Hazards educational video made by the Kraffts, which had a lot of gruesome footage showing how you'd look like if you didn't evacuate.

I tend to err on the side of libertarianism too. but there are dangers and there are dangers. I've been to many a volcano but I haven't been to many active ones alas. White Island so far heads the list. And here you can take a calculated risk, inform people about it and let em at it.

But I don't think you can do that same calculation with something like Hunga Tonga or Chaiten - it's just too unpredictable. Look at how little warning some of those Redoubt eruptions gave and how big they were. If you want to take those sort of risks with your life, feel free. But without being able to know how big they are it only seems to fair to warn people that it is verging on suicidal.

I don't have a problem with people doing that provided:

A: The local government explains that the entire island could (virtually) vaporize without any warning whatsoever.

B: The local government explains that there will be NO rescue attempts should something go wrong. They are completely on their own.

C: It is made clear that everyone in the party understands A and B including logistics and transport personnel.

Governments have a responsibility to inform people of a danger but there is no requirement that they "protect" us from our own stupidity. The government isn't our guardian. Innocent people who find themselves unexpectedly in a life threatening position are one thing. People intentionally placing themselves in a known hazard area and who are aware of the risk they are taking are a completely different issue.

When it comes to volcanoes, every visitor is ultimately just a "tourist."

They just had a tropical cyclone there. Wonder if the island is still there.

It is unethical to visit these emerging islands without due consideration of what bio hazards you bring with you. These are new, blank biomes. The piece of bird shit attached to the cameraman's boot is not an appropriate start for such a thing.