The latest documentary on Netflix is The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, which tells the story of the 2019 volcanic eruption and the people who were there that day. The film incorporates real footage from the tourists that were on the island the moment the volcano erupted and has interviews with survivors who retell their horrific experience on that tragic day. It brings to mind a consideration for potential natural disasters and other dangers when planning something as unassuming as a tourist stop. In order to better understand volcanoes, we spoke with NASA volcanologist Dr. Rosaly Lopes.
Dorkaholics: Hi, my name is Neil and I’m with Dorkaholics.com. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you, Dr. Rosaly Lopes.
Dr. Rosaly Lopes: Thank you, pleasure to speak with you.
Dorkaholics: As a directorate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I’m curious what being a volcano expert entails.
Dr. Rosaly Lopes: Well, I study volcanoes on Earth but also on other planets so I have done a lot of work on the volcanoes of Jupiter’s moon IO. IO is the most volcanically active object in the solar system and also some volcanoes on Mars and even what we call cryovolcanoes which are cold volcanoes that spew out water like on Enceladus and Titan and other icy moons. So I like volcanoes, [it] doesn’t matter where they are.
Dorkaholics: I hope we have time later for me to ask you about those off-world volcanoes but in regards to Rescue from Whakaari, I’m curious what your thoughts were on how the documentary went about telling the story.
Dr. Rosaly Lopes: I thought the documentary was fantastic. I was actually in Whakaari/White Island in 2014, so I did that same tour and I was aware that it was potentially dangerous, although the chances that there would be an explosion at the exact time when a tourist group was there was pretty small. Nevertheless, it was a risk and I was a little bit surprised that there were so many tours there but I thought the documentary did a really great job of telling the story, a very tragic story of course.
Dorkaholics: What is the most important lesson that you think we can all learn from this tragic event?
Dr. Rosaly Lopes: Volcanoes are basically dangerous and some volcanoes are more dangerous than others. If you go to a place like Kilauea in Hawaii or Iceland, one of the Icelandic volcanoes, they’re usually not explosive. So what makes a volcano really dangerous is if they are explosive and that’s what happened at Whakaari and in fact we knew that that type of volcano could have an explosion suddenly. When I was a graduate student, I did work on Mount Etna in Sicily and there was an unexpected explosion because there had been some rain and some collapse and there was like a steam explosion which is similar to what happened here at Whakaari. And it was without any warning and in fact some tourists were killed there as well. On Whakaari, there was also a pyroclastic flow and that’s the most deadly thing that a volcano can put out so it’s very hard to escape from that.
Dorkaholics: You mentioned having traveled to Whakaari before. I’m curious how many times in your life have you been to Whakaari.
Dr. Rosaly Lopes: I was there only once in 2014 and the one thing that I thought was quite curious was [that] I was with a colleague, another volcanologist, and then we got in touch with one of the volcanologists from New Zealand and [asked] is it possible for us to go visit. We’re expecting that we would go with them because we knew it was a potentially dangerous place and the reply was that well actually we have a lot of restrictions on going to Whakaari but you can take this tour. And I thought that was really quite strange because usually the volcanologists can go and if it’s somewhere potentially dangerous, then the tourists wouldn’t go but here it seemed that it was easier to go as a tourist. So that’s what we did and it was a fantastic place. I mean for a volcanologist it was beautiful, it was interesting, beautiful sulfur formations but all the time I was looking out for any potential change and an escape route.
Watch the rest of the interview below!
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is now available on Netflix (as of December 16, 2022).
To learn more about Dr. Rosaly Lopes, visit NASA’s website.
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