Tuesday August 7, 2012 8:38 AM NZT
Auckland, 16° 8° Change
Mt Tongariro eruption: Code red
UPDATED8:29 AM Tuesday Aug 7, 2012
A thick ash cloud is covering much of the central North Island after Mt Tongariro erupted for the first time in more than a century late last night.
The volcanic alert level for Mt Tongariro has risen from 1 to 2, while the aviation colour code has been raised to red.
Roads are closed, flights are likely to be disrupted and nearby residents are advised to stay indoors as ash and rock spews from the mountain.
Turoa Ski Area manager Chris Thrupp told Firstline the ski field remains open and has not been advised to close. He said the ash has not drifted to Ruapehu, south of Tongariro.
"The ash is the concern - if the wind changes, which we don't believe it will."
GNS science is reporting that about 11.50pm on Monday night ash fall began to be reported in the volcano's vicinity - it has since been reported as far east as SH5 near Te Haroto and in Napier.
It is the first time the mountain has erupted since 1897.
GNS duty volcanologist Michael Rosenberg told Radio New Zealand that some people are reported to have left their houses on the southern shores of Lake Rotoaira, though no formal notices of evacuation have been issued so far by Civil Defence.
He said residents in the area have told GNS of hearing several loud explosions, lightning and plumes of smoke and police have been told by an onlooker that "a new hole in the side of the mountain" had formed.
They have also reported bright red rocks flying out of the mountain.
The eruption reportedly happened at the Te Mari Craters, which are close to the Ketetahi Hot Springs on the northern side of the mountain.
There have been no further eruptions since midnight, according to GNS seismic records.
Mr Rosenberg said while volcanologists have been monitoring small earthquakes under the mountain in the past few weeks, the eruption was "quite unexpected".
Activity at the mountain is expected continue for some time, bit it was "anyone's guess" whether there would be larger eruptions.
Civil defence spokesman Vince Cholewa told Newstalk ZB ash could reach those living in Waikato, Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, Manawatu-Wanganui, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.
"The advice to people is to stay indoors, because volcanic ash can obviously be a health hazard, if they're indoors please close windows and doors to try and limit the entry of ash."
"Evacuations have not been ordered, please listen to the radio for advice from local authorities and police, any evacuations would be issued at that level, and based on the evidence from GNS Science."
Police are sending search and rescue teams up Mt Tongariro at first light to check no one is stranded in huts. However, they say there have been no reports of injuries or damage.
Air New Zealand said flights to and from airports east of Mount Tongariro, including Gisborne, Rotorua, Taupo, Napier and Palmerston North, may be delayed or cancelled as a result of the eruption.
Captain David Morgan, Air New Zealand general manager airline operations and safety and chief pilot, said the airline is working with the relevant authorities to make adjustments to flight routes to ensure aircraft remain clear of any ash.
Passengers are advised to check the Air New Zealand website for flight arrivals and departures information.
Civil Aviation Authority manager of meteorology Peter Lechner said the plume is leading off to the east and south east affecting a zone of airspace stretching as far as from Tongariro to north of Gisborne then south to Hawkes Bay and possibly northern Wairarapa.
The CAA alerted all aircraft using a volcanic ash advisory system, working with MetService.
WeatherWatch chief analyst Philip Duncan said westerlies will continue to blow the ash east to south east of the mountain.
"The winds don't look especially strong over the next few days as the centre of a low crosses the North Island - the lighter the winds are the more ash will fall locally around the mountain and less likely to cause widespread disruptions further afield."
The Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (MCDEM) is currently assessing information with the assistance of GNS scientific advisors.
It has not yet activated the National Crisis Management Centre which is called upon in times of emergency like the Christchurch earthquake.
New Zealand's other high profile active volcano, White Island, also had its alert level raised from 1 to 2 on Monday after a small eruption was recorded in its crater lake.
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