While scientists measure Whakaari tremors, spiritual leaders tell of the warning their ancestors are sending

Two newspaper reports illustrate the contrasting involvements of science and spiritual beliefs in the aftermath of the White Island eruption.

Meanwhile several iwi have placed rāhui over their customary coastal areas.

This effectively represents a customary prohibition on all maritime activities for the whole of the Eastern Bay of Plenty coast.

New Zealand Herald science writer Jamie Morton yesterday examined the role of scientists in a report headed White Island eruption: How do scientists forecast potential further eruptions?

He reported that GNS Science experts had given a 40 to 60 per cent chance of another eruption outside White Island’s vent area in the next 24 hours.

That “medium” likelihood was dramatically different to the 0.1 to 0.2 per cent probability of an eruption set back in late October, when the island’s volcanic alert level had been set at 1.

GNS Science duty volcanologist Craig Miller said volcanic tremors had increased since this morning.

“Our monitoring equipment continues to function and is providing us with continuous data on the volcano’s activity,” Miller said.   

“The latest data shows ground shaking is increasing. It’s important to remember Whakaari/White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and there remains significant uncertainty about any future activity.”

Morton then addressed a key question:  how did scientists work out probabilities?

“After there’s been an earthquake, there is a very well-defined physical law of aftershock decay that you can use to make probability calculations,” GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott said.

“In a volcano situation, that doesn’t exist.”

After an eruption as happened on Monday’s, GNS scientists look at questions such as the possibility of further eruptions in the week, month or year to come, and which specific areas are most vulnerable.

They draw on a methodology called expert elicitation: essentially the consensus of opinions given in response to carefully-designed questions.

Scott said those opinions were formed not only by scientific expertise, but what the latest monitoring data showed.

“What results from that is an indication of risk to life at returning to the volcano,” he said.

“Firstly, we do a calculation around the potential safety of our staff and that informs our decision over whether they should or shouldn’t be in the field.

“Then we look at different scenarios. In the simplest sense, you can take small, medium and large eruptions, and the team is asked what do we consider is the likeliest event.

“The probability should all point to one of those.”

On Tuesday, Scott said scientists had put “all of the eggs in the same cart, and saying there’s a 50-50 chance of a similar sized or smaller eruption, or nothing”.

“But there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty around the process.”

 The spiritual world has the benefit of being much more certain.

According to a Reuters report published in the Daily Mail,  a Maori spiritual leader whose tribe owns the tour company which took tourists on a doomed voyage to White Island said the eruption that killed six people was the volcano ‘speaking out to us’.

The report was headlined Maori leader says New Zealand eruption was the volcano ‘passing on a warning from the spiritual realm’ as he performs sacred protection ceremony.

It quoted Pouroto Ngaropo, of Ngati Awa, the senior cultural adviser to the Whakatāne District Council.  He placed a rāhui on White Island on Tuesday.

Ngaropo regards the volcano as one of his ancestors  and explained that the ‘rahui’ places spiritual protection over the island, Reuters reported.

The rāhui bans anyone except rescuers from stepping foot on the island until the bodies of those killed there have been recovered and returned to their families.

Ngaropo says he believes that Whakaari – which means to ‘reveal’ or ‘show’ – was giving a warning, passing on a message from the spiritual to the physical realm.

The eruption, he said, was a reminder of the power of nature and humans’ connection with it.

‘Things are going to change and the order of things are going to be restored in terms of the spiritual domain, the connection to the environment … and our connection to each other so it´s a very important message … Whakaari is speaking out to us.’  <

‘Whakaari is my connection to the ocean, to the land, and to the environment around me … we are one and she’s our ancestor,’ the 51-year old added.

Reuters explained that the volcano island holds deep spiritual significance for his iwi or tribe, Ngati Awa, which also own the company that ran tours there before the eruption.

The morning after the eruption, Ngaropo went out with two others at 4 am

– the time when he says the connection with the spiritual world is strongest.

He uttered a special prayer that places a prohibition, known as a rahui, barring anyone save rescuers from visiting the island or fishing near the shores of the bay.

‘We can’t because Whakaari is in a state of mourning, her descendants have passed on and they’re lying dead, still there on the island. 

‘The rahui protects all of those things, it protects their spiritual right to have a proper burial ceremony,’ he said.

The spiritual and cultural restrictions will last until all remains had been returned to families, Ngaropo said. 

When that happens, he will go out again, early in the morning, to lift the prohibition.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Awa and Te Tapatoru a Toi Joint Management Committee this morning issued a press statement to ask people to respect a rāhui (temporary ritual prohibition) placed over the tribe’s customary coastal boundaries as a result of the eruption at Whakaari / White Island.

The statement said the rāhui encompasses the Whakatāne, Ōhope and Ōhiwa coastlines, and Rurima, Moutohora and Te Puia ō Whakaari islands.

It aimed to persuade non-Maori to comply with their cultural practices.

Ngāti Awa rangatira Te Kei Merito says that while most Māori understand the purpose of a rāhui and naturally adhere to it, it is also important to convey the ethos of rāhui to the wider community so they might be more inclined to respect the prohibitive nature of the custom.

“There are a number of reasons to place a rāhui, and in this case the purpose is to acknowledge the fact that multiple people have already lost their lives as a result of the eruption. The application of rāhui in this instance is very much a sign of respect to those who lost their lives, and to their families;

“It is a very Māori – and in this case a very Ngāti Awa – way of expressing respect, sympathy and aroha in harrowing times such as these”

Neighbouring iwi, including Te Whakatōhea and Te Whānau a Apanui, have also placed rāhui over their customary coastal areas.

This effectively represents a customary prohibition on all maritime activities for the whole of the Eastern Bay of Plenty coast. Mr Merito says he hopes the mana of the rāhui – and the iwi who have placed them – will be respected.

The rāhui will be temporarily lifted to accommodate the eventual recovery operation from Whakaari.

A Ngāti Awa tohunga will accompany the recovery team to the island “to conduct the necessary cultural imperatives and provide spiritual support to the recovery team”.

The scientists, we may suppose, at the same time will be working on their calculations in their efforts to provide more accurate predictions of the next devastating volcanic blast.


One thought on “While scientists measure Whakaari tremors, spiritual leaders tell of the warning their ancestors are sending

  1. In the middle of tragedy this country descends into farce. Does the “rahui” permit evidence gathering for a possible prosecution?


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