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New Zealand volcano erupts for first time since 1897

By David Barber –

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Scientists monitoring a New Zealand volcano that erupted for the first time in 115 years said it was quiet on Tuesday but unpredictable and could blow again at any time.

The 1,968-meter Mount Tongariro erupted late Monday shortly before midnight, throwing rocks into the air that landed up to a half-mile away, but there were no reports of casualties or damage.

Winds carried a cloud of volcanic ash across the center of the North Island to the east coast city of Napier, more than 125 miles away.

Police lifted a warning for people to stay indoors, saying there was no health risk except to people with respiratory illnesses. Civil defense officials canceled a potential threat advisory.

But the New Zealand Post canceled deliveries in Napier and nearby Hastings for their carriers’ safety.

The state Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences said the eruption, accompanied by a series of small earthquakes, comprised steam from the mountain’s hydrothermal system rather than molten lava ejected from the core.

It said a helicopter flight over the mountain, which last blew in 1897, confirmed that activity had subsided, but it posted a volcanic alert of two on a scale of five and said it could not predict what would happen next.

“As with any volcano, an eruption could occur at Tongariro at any time with little or no warning, and there is an elevated level of risk,” it said.

Scientists admitted they were surprised by the eruption and said heightened seismic activity could continue for several weeks.

Some people left their homes, but there was no official evacuation. Police closed the island’s main highway, linking the capital, Wellington, with the biggest city, Auckland, because of poor visibility during the night, but it was reopened after daylight.

Tongariro is the smallest of three volcanoes in a national park on the central North Island’s plateau. Ski fields on 2,797-meter Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano that last erupted in 2007, continued to operate. Authorities closed the 120-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a popular hiking track, until further notice.

Air New Zealand canceled flights to and from North Island cities, and off-duty air traffic controllers were called in to help pilots fly clear of the ash cloud.

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