Satellite Sees Deadly New Zealand Volcano Eruption from Space (Photos)

A satellite image of New Zealand's White Island on Dec. 11, 2019, three days after the volcano erupted. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)

New satellite imagery shows the devastation after a deadly New Zealand volcanic eruption (opens in new tab) on Sunday (Dec. 8).

An image from Maxar Technologies show a volcanic plume on the Pacific Ocean's White Island, and what appears to be fresh debris surrounding the caldera from the boulders and ash flung up by the explosion. A comparison image from May 12 (below), also provided by Maxar, shows a more quiescent plume and green vegetation on the edges of the island.

The imagery "provides the first high-resolution satellite imagery that visually documents the aftermath of the eruption," Maxar said in a statement. The company did not say which satellite it used to obtain the data, but it added it will continue to "monitor activity around the White Island volcano and will provide updates as applicable."

Related: Raikoke Volcano's Eruption Seen from Space (Photos)

A satellite image of White Island taken on May 12, 2019 (Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)

The active volcano unexpectedly erupted about 2:11 p.m. local time on Monday, Dec. 9 ( 0111 GMT, or 8:11 p.m. EST Sunday). Officials say 47 people, including New Zealanders and tourists, were visiting the island during the eruption, according to the New Zealand Herald (opens in new tab)

Emergency personnel cannot go on the island now because the volcano is considered too dangerous, according to NBC News. (opens in new tab) There are six confirmed deaths and 31 others injured, mostly from severe burns. There are eight others still on the island who are considered missing but presumed dead since nobody has heard from them since the explosion.

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"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," New Zealand police said in a news conference shortly after the eruption. Subsequent flyovers showed no signs of life on the island.

Experts at GeoNet, which examines geological hazards in the New Zealand area, warned of more volcanic activity in the weeks before the explosion, according to The Washington Post (opens in new tab). Visitors were still allowed on the island, though.

"Moderate volcanic unrest continues at Whakaari/White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake," GeoNet said in a statement (opens in new tab) on Dec. 3, about a week before the eruption. "Observations and data to date suggest that the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal."

The explosion happened so suddenly due to the nature of the magma on the island, Shane Cronin, a professor of Earth sciences at the University of Auckland, wrote on's sister site Live Science (opens in new tab).

"Magma is shallow, and the heat and gases affect surface and ground water to form vigorous hydrothermal systems," Cronin wrote. "In these, water is trapped in pores of rocks in a superheated state. Any external process, such as an earthquake, gas input from below, or even a change in the lake water level can tip this delicate balance and release the pressure on the hot and trapped water.

"The resulting steam-driven eruption," Cronin said, "also called a hydrothermal or phreatic eruption, can happen suddenly and with little to no warning. The expansion of water into steam is supersonic in speed, and the liquid can expand to 1,700 times its original volume. This produces catastrophic impacts."

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: