A volcanic eruption in New Zealand left at least five people dead and more missing Monday on a volcanic island off the country’s northeast coast.
Police said White Island, also called Whakaari, is still too dangerous for search and rescue crews.
Fewer than 50 people were on the island when it erupted and 23, including the five dead, have been evacuated, said Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims. Tims was unsure of the exact number of people missing but said it was in the double digits.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called eruption “very significant” and traveled to the area Monday. “All our thoughts are with those affected,” she said.
Here’s what we know now:
What happened on White Island?
According to GeoNet, which tracks volcanic activity in New Zealand, the eruption occurred just after 2 p.m. local time.
The eruption was “short-lived” and sent an ash plume soaring about 12,000 feet above the volcano’s vent, according to GeoNet volcanologist Geoff Kilgour.
Kilgour wrote that volcanic activity on the island has since diminished.
“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” said GeoNet’s Ken Gledhill. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”
Videos and photos shared on social media show massive plumes of smoke coming off the island.
Both New Zealanders and tourists were among the dead, missing or injured, said Tims. Many of the 18 survivors were injured, some with severe burns, he said.
A Royal Caribbean International cruise ship, Ovation of the Seas, was on the island at the time, the company confirmed. The ship was to sail to Wellington on Monday, but instead would remain in the Tauranga port overnight to learn more, the company said.
Where is White Island?
White Island is about 30 miles off New Zealand’s North Island in the Bay of Plenty. It is also known by its indigenous Maori name Whakaari.
The cone volcano is New Zealand’s most active, experts say, and about 70% of it sits under the sea.
According to the New Zealand Herald, a shelter was installed in 2016 on the island in case of unexpected eruptions.
The island has a history of mining but is now a tourist attraction. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and more than 10,000 people visit the volcano each year on daily tours.
Were there warning signs that the White Island volcano would erupt?
GeoNet had raised its alert level on the island from one to two on Nov. 18 as sulfur dioxide gas increased.
According to GeoNet, a level two warning is means there are “unrest hazards on the volcano and could include eruptions of steam, gas, mud and rocks. These eruptions can occur with little or no warning.”
GeoNet had been providing updates on the volcanic unrest on the island in the days leading up to the eruption.
“Volcanic gas emission and seismic activity continue to remain elevated,” GeoNet’s Brad Scott wrote last Tuesday. “Observations and data to date suggest that the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.”
Scott said alert levels can often raise then fall without an eruption.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller