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Mount Tongariro eruption grounds flights

Mount Tongariro eruptionAir travel around New Zealand has been disrupted with the volcanic eruption of Mount Tongariro’s Te Maari crater.  The explosion sent a plume of ash over 5,280ft into the air and lasted for about five minutes.  GNS Science confirmed the eruption at the crater occurred shortly after 1:20pm on Wednesday, and it has updated its alert to level two, indicating minor activity.  This is the second time the mountain has had an eruption this year, and it may not be the last.

Flights have been disrupted in the area, which is typical when there’s a volcano.  Air New Zealand had to ground flights between Wellington and Taupo due to the eruption, and the colour code for the aviation industry was increased to red.  This indicates a significant emission of ash in the air.  A spokesman for the carrier said they are working with the Civil Aviation Authority and MetService to track the ash cloud.

Mt Cook Airline and Air Nelson were also monitoring the situation and deciding if they should cancel more flights.  New Plymouth Airport also reported flight cancellations due to the Mt Tongariro explosion, but those were limited to the evening and were reportedly resumed in the morning.

A group of 90 schoolchildren had to flee the scene of the eruption.  The students from Napier were walking the Tongariro track, less than one mile from the crater, with four teachers and six parents.  It’s understood they are safe, along with other hikers.  Another 20 schoolchildren from Gulf Harbour were with guides and parents not far from the crater as well.

Jonathan Maxwell, the area manager for the Department of Conservation, said that about 30 to 50 people were evacuating from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, and no injuries were reported.  The department had warned hikers about avoiding the Mount Ruapehu summit.  Temperature readings from scientists had indicated an increased risk that the country’s biggest active volcano could erupt.  GNS Science said temperatures below the North Island crater’s lake suggested that a vent was partially blocked.  This is leading to increased pressure that will make eruptions more likely during the next few weeks to months.

Due to the eruption, state highways have been closed in the area.  The Taranaki Civil Defence has issued a national advisory that the ash cloud could affect regions from Waikato to Hawke’s Bay. Shane Briggs, the senior emergency management officer, said that there aren’t any immediate concerns, but they will be monitoring the situation.  There aren’t any health concerns, but they will be on the lookout for the weather forecast and how much ash will be in the air.

Briggs added that Mt Taranaki is constantly monitored for activity and hadn’t shown any signs of change recently.  It continues to be very quiet, like in the last few years.  It’s worth noting that this eruption and the previous one aren’t linked.  They are independent of one another, and just because one in the central region has erupted doesn’t mean something else will happen.

On 6 August, an eruption sent an ash plume 20,000ft into the air, which disrupted domestic flights.  Prior to that, the mountain erupted in 2007, with a lahar being sent down the mountain.  This is a fast-moving stream of debris and mud.  A huge lahar was sent down the mountain in 1953, causing the worst rail disaster in New Zealand.  It took out a bridge, and a passenger train sent plunging into the river below, killing 151 people.

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