(stuff.co.nz) Mt Tongariro has erupted for the first time in 100 years, throwing rocks and spewing ash from craters – closing roads, disrupting flights and closing roads.
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The eruption at 11.50pm last night threw rocks and spewed ash from the Te Mari craters, near Ketetahi hot springs, on the northern side of the mountain, GNS Science said.
A trucker, Bryn Rodda, said he saw part of the eruption.
“I could see this big cloud, it looked like a fist basically, at an angle across the sky…and at about the wrist section of the fist there was an orange ball of flash that I saw, that was all I could see,” he told Radio New Zealand.
This morning an ash plume could be seen amongst the cloud that was covering the mountain.
Civil Defence said volcanic activity could pose a threat to Waikato, Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, Manawatu-Whanganui, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.
People living in those areas were advised to stay indoors with all the windows and doors closed and listen to the radio for updated emergency information and instructions.
The volcanic alert level remained at Level 2 but Civil Defence had increased the Aviation Colour Code from Orange to Red.
The Desert Road section of State Highway 1, northeast of the mountain, and State Highway 46, to the north, had been closed due to the ash.
Motorists were being advised to avoid travel in the area. The road closures would be reassessed at daylight.
Light ash had been reported as falling on SH1 and SH46 and as far as SH5, near Te Haroto and onto Napier city.
An incident management centre had been set up at Whakapapa DOC visitor centre, and local council, police and Department of Conservation were meeting in Taupo this morning.
There had been no further volcanic activity reported since last night.
Civil Defence has not activated the National Crises Management Centre.
Inspector Ian Harris, of police central communications, said search and rescue teams would be sent up the mountain at dawn to check that no one had been stranded in huts.
There had been no reports of injuries or damage because of the eruption and no evacuation notices had been issued, he said.
However, GNS Science duty volcanologist Michael Rosenberg said some people in the Lake Rotoaira area had self-evacuated following the eruption.
There had been reports of “red hot rocks being thrown out of the crater”, several loud explosions and lightning when the eruption occurred and ash had fallen 5cm deep on SH46, he said.
The eruption had been “really unexpected”.
“You can measure and monitor but sometimes mother nature will do her own thing.”
GNS Science planned to send observers to the mountain later this morning, Rosenberg said.
A service station attendant at the Caltex Service Station in Raetihi, beneath the southern slopes of Mt Ruapehu, said the highway between National Park and Raetihi was still open.
She said no ash had fallen on Raetihi overnight.
A worker at the BP Service Station in Turangi, John MacRae, said while no ash had fallen in Turangi this morning, there was “a sulphur smell round the place”.
Prime Minister John Key was being updated on the eruption by Civil Defence and other Government sources.
He described the volcanic activity as moderate but said Tongaririo would continue to be closely monitored.
If the situation required evacuations or an emergency response, Civil Defence would take responsibility of all emergency services.
“At this stage it is very much monitoring,” he told TV3’s Firstline programme.
Civil aviation director of meteorology Peter Lechner said the eruption would affect regional flights.
Hawke’s Bay airport was closed until further notice, according to tweet from MP Craig Foss.
“The ash cloud is obviously stretching from the moutain out towards the east, so by about 9 o’clock this morning we expect that plume to cover probably Gisborne south through Hawke’s Bay, perhaps into the northern Wairarapa.
“So air travel into those areas, namely Gisborne, Hawke’s Bay aerodrome, and of course Taupo aerodrome will probably be affected by the ash,” he told Radio New Zealand.
Airlines would need to decide whether they would continue flying in and out of that area, Lechner said.
“It’s up to them to stay clear of the ash. If they can find a clear way through that’s fine.”
Flights overhead, such as from Auckland to Wellington, would not be affected. Those flights were usually at about 30,000 to 35,000 feet while the ash plume was about 20,000 feet, Lechner said.
If the weather patterns continue, the ash could be pushed out to sea by about 6pm tonight, Lechner said.
“As long as there are no further eruptions, that’s a good thing.”
There were five reported eruptions from the Te Mari craters between 1855 and 1897 but they had been dormant until now, the GeoNet website said.
– Michelle Cooke, Marcus Stickley, Zar Lilley, Tim Donohue and Danya Levy