Charges laid after Whakaari/White Island disaster – Expert Reaction

Thirteen parties including GNS Science are facing charges following the 2019 Whakaari/White Island eruption that claimed 22 lives.

Three individuals and 10 organisations – including GNS and the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) – have been charged by WorkSafe. GNS says it has not been told of the nature of the charges, but it stands by its people and its science. The court date is set for Tuesday, 15 December.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the charges.

Professor Shane Cronin, Professor of Volcanology, University of Auckland, comments:

“I think it is good that questions are asked, so that those affected by the tragedy are able to gain some sense of solace and satisfaction that we will learn from it. I hope that there will be recommendations for improved practice around volcanic hazard management and safety in the future. I have no knowledge of any of the details of the charges or the points of law they concern. I do hope, however, that the inquiries keep the following things in mind with respect to providing science advice:

“Volcanoes are dangerous and unpredictable phenomena. Even with all the knowledge in the world, we as scientists will never truly be able to recognise every sign of impending eruption, nor forecast every event.

“New Zealand volcano agencies, especially GNS Science and GEONET have always strived to provide as much information as they can, as quickly as they can, and as simply as they can to the public. Looking back, there are questions as to whether the generic Volcanic Alert Level System was appropriate for a volcano such as Whakaari, which has much more rapid changes in eruption state than most of our other volcanoes and produces explosions with very little warning.

“I hope that whatever comes of these charges, that we have a stronger and more open science communication framework for volcanoes and their hazards. The worst possible outcome, would be if volcano science agencies such as GNS Science, or individual volcano scientists become too timid to make public statements on volcanic activity for fear of being wrong, or of being prosecuted.”

Conflict of interest: I am a member of the NZ Volcano Science Advisory Group which is convened by NEMA (formerly MCDEM).