WHITE ISLAND

How crazy did you have to be, they would ask, to go walking around a live volcano, let alone run a business taking people there? The truth was: not crazy at all. Compared with climbing or jet-boating, or even swimming or driving a car, visiting a volcano was safe. A 2017 Journal of Applied Volcanology survey of every recorded volcano fatality for the past five centuries found that an average of one tourist, climber, camper, student, pilgrim, or park warden died every year on a volcano. Instead, like earthquakes and tsunamis, most volcano deaths occur among people who live in the area—the Journalcounted 800 million residents within 60 miles of the world’s 1,508 active volcanoes, and reported that 216,035 had died in 517 years—though today, with early warnings and evacuation drills, years can pass without a single one of those, either.

White Island was also one of the world’s most closely observed craters, studded with webcams, seismometers, UV spectrometers, and survey pegs. The chemical makeup of its air and waters was regularly tested. The results fed into a frequent analysis by the geological monitoring service, GeoNet, which rated the alert level on a scale of 0 to 5. Limiting tours to levels 1 and 2, and granting skippers and pilots the prerogative to cancel a landing if they didn’t like the conditions, had helped ensure no fatalities in more than a century, even though White Island erupted continuously from 1975 to 2000.

"Visiting White Island was about the thrill of feeling a little more alive by feeling a little closer to death, all the while knowing that, really, you were in no more danger than you would be crossing a road."