Geoscientific agency sued after catastrophic eruption in New Zealand

In 2020, a volcanic eruption in the White Island, New Zealand, left dead and 21 wounded . In November of last year, the Earth science research agency called GNS Science, responsible for monitoring seismic and volcanic activities in the region, was accused of being responsible for the catastrophe. GNS Science claims to be innocent, but the case opens up space for discussion about the real limits of responsibility and who, in fact, something like this should be charged.

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Ilha Branca volcano is located at 51 km from the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. On December 9, 2020, an explosive eruption released steam, rocks and a series of debris, causing the deaths and injuries on the spot. Rarely are public and scientific agencies accused of irresponsibility and some experts fear that the case could have a negative effect on the ability of organizations to provide data for risk management.

Satellite image taken three days after the eruption (Image: Reproduction/Maxar Technologies)

On the other hand, the judgment can define the roles and responsibilities of GNS Sicence — and others involved in the incident — in keeping the island’s inhabitants and tourists informed and protected. “One of the questions this case raises is how far a scientific organization should go in terms of presenting information in a way that is accessible to the public, and how do you assess whether they have done that,” explains Simon Connel, accident law specialist for the University of Otago.

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The volcano of Ilha Branca, which is also known as Whakaari, is one of the most active in the area and, until the eruption of 2020, was one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region, which included tours of the crater. Volcanologist Raymond Cas, from Monash University, says that the tragedy was already announced, noting that, in 2016, there was an eruption very similar to the one in 2020, but it was night and there was no no one close to the site.

(Image: Screenshot/Google Maps)

In November 2020, the The country’s occupational health and safety regulatory agency, called WorkSafe New Zeland, brought two charges against GNS Science, which included the two eruptions, of 2015 and 2020 — each of the fines worth up to $1 million. The scientific agency is the first to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Law, established in 1914 in New Zealand.

In a statement published in November 2015, WorkSafe New Zealand Chief Executive Phil Parkes claimed that while the eruption was unexpected, it was not unpredictable and therefore any organization or individuals involved in transporting people to the island should see to it. their security. In addition to GNS Science, seven tour operators and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) are defendants in the case.

The difficult task of predicting volcanic eruptions

Most volcanologists agree that predicting an eruption volcanic is something difficult, especially explosive ones, like the one that occurred in Ilha Branca in 2015. Volcanologist Roberto Sulpizio, from the University of Bari, explains that New Zealand’s system of volcanic warning levels does not indicate future risk. He also points out that responsibilities will be clarified in court.


The volcano Cumbre Vieja, in the Canary Islands, erupted on the last day 19 September, but the monitoring work guaranteed the protection of the inhabitants of the island of La Palma (Image: Reproduction/LandSat/NASA)
The first catastrophic eruption on the White Island occurred in 2015, causing the death of several miners working in the region. In the weeks leading up to the event of 2015, the volcanic alert bulletins pointed to seismic activities, mud and gas emissions, and changes in the levels of the lake located in the crater—common signs that volcanoes exhibit before an eruption.

The allegations allege failures to conduct risk assessments and communiqués. Wilson says that requiring such companies, such as tourism companies, to conduct this reading is a difficult task. “You’re asking these relatively small companies to do very sophisticated risk assessments,” he adds. If GNS Science is found guilty, other scientific agencies may be afraid to share information about natural hazards and eventually face the same situation.

Similar case in Italy

In 1914, the L’Aquila earthquake shook the center of Italy, causing 51 deaths. The case brought six scientists and a government official to court, initially convicted of manslaughter (when there is no intention to kill). The scientists’ defense was annulled with appeal, but the international scientific community of geoscience started to evaluate the best way to communicate risks to the public.

Epicenter of the L Earthquake ‘Aquila (Image: Reproduction/Public Domain)

Worldwide As seismologist Charlotte Roew of the Los Alamos National Laboratory points out, geologists are working to find the best way to emit volcanic hazards. “It’s an evolving system,” she adds. In Japan, for example, the national meteorological agency issues warnings explaining the alert levels, including evacuation measures, if necessary.

The L’Aquila case served to clarify and define the functions responsibility of both the scientific bodies and the Department of Civil Protection. In New Zealand, tourism on the White Island has been suspended since the eruption in 2020 and not there is a return forecast. NEMA pleaded not guilty in court on July 3, and on the day 26, it was the turn of the other accused. The next hearing is scheduled for the day October this year, at Whakatane District Court.

Source: Nature

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