NEW Zealand’s Mount Tongariro volcano in the central North Island has erupted, sending a black plume of gas and ash up to 2km into the air, the Department of Conservation says.
The department closed the popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing walking track on Wednesday afternoon (local time) and staff and police were urging people hiking the crossing to leave the mountain as quickly as possible.
An eruption earlier this year sent rocks smashing into a trampers hut.
Wednesday’s fine weather meant hundreds could be in the vicinity, but as the eruption happened in the afternoon most people would already be making their way down, department spokeswoman Kim Turia told AAP.
“It’s not a large-scale search and rescue exercise, there are no volcanic rocks in the eruption, just ash and gas.”
Staff were trying to get people off the crossing with a minimum of panic, she said.
The crossing would reopen once GNS Science had given the all clear.
Civil Defence is monitoring the situation, but described the event as minor.
GNS Science said a plume of smoke from the Te Maari Crater, on the northern side of Tongariro, was captured on web camera about 1.30pm (1130 AEDT). A light wind was blowing it towards the Kaimanawa Ranges to the east.
The eruption prompted the volcanic alert level to be raised to “minor eruptive activity” and the aviation colour code to red – “eruption is forecast to be imminent and significant ash emission into the atmosphere likely”.
Some media reported sources saying the eruption did not last long.
A spokeswoman for Airways, the organisation responsible for air traffic management, said flights over the central North Island were being diverted away from the volcano.
There were clear skies in the area and pilots could see the eruption smoke.
Airways was waiting on more information from GNS before deciding if aircraft would be diverted even further from the volcano.
Last week, GNS warned there was increased activity underneath nearby Mt Ruapehu.
In August, the upper Te Maari Crater erupted for the first time in more than a century, sending rocks falling within 1km of the crater, damaging Ketetahi Hut – one of four hikers’ huts on the mountain.
Light ash fell as far away as Taupo and Napier, while the smell of gas – similar to the “rotten eggs” smell experienced in Rotorua – had drifted to Wellington.