A veteran volcanologist has won New Zealand’s top research honour for his work on explosive volcanoes and the threat they pose to us.
And a visualisation by the Auckland Museum shows what a volcano in New Zealand’s largest city would look like.
Victoria University’s Professor Colin Wilson, who is now leading an $8.2 million, five-year study into the risk of a New Zealand super-eruption, has been awarded the Rutherford Medal at the Royal Society Te Aparangi’s annual Research Honours dinner.
Wilson has worked on many of the world’s volcanoes, including Taupo, and Long Valley and Yellowstone in the United States.
His work has pioneered new techniques to map out the volcanic processes from slumber to massive eruption, and has helped us understand how, where and when molten rock gathers below volcanoes.
Perhaps most impressively, Wilson’s research has been able to link long-term cycles with some of the largest and most destructive eruptions known to science.
His research showed how there was a long build-up to the massive Oruanui super-eruption from Taupo about 25,500 years ago, which created an enormous caldera that Lake Taupo fills only part of today.
Scientists believe the eruption would have been heard in central Australia and spread ash as far as Antarctica.
Wilson has also studied the volcanoes of Raoul, Healy and Macauley in the Kermadec Arc – in the latter volcano, he showed how it didn’t produce a violent explosion, but buoyant lava balloons, jokingly described as “lava lamps on speed”.
This new type of eruption was named by Wilson and his team as the “Tangaroan” eruptive style, after the Niwa research vessel that is itself named after the Maori god of the sea.
In a new government-funded study he and colleagues aim to create a state-of-the-art model to clear up some of the uncertainty surrounding the risk of volcanoes.
Super-eruptions are extremely rare: in the past 2.8 million years only 10 have been recorded, four of them in our Central North Island.
“Professor Wilson is a world-renowned geologist whose research has provided profound insight into how volcanoes behave,” stated the selection panel that awarded him the honour.
“He is a meticulous, insightful and highly productive researcher who melds acute field observations with advanced analytical techniques.”
Wilson said he was “deeply grateful” for the honour and the recognition that it brought.
“The work for which I am being recognised owes, however, a great debt to the many outstanding students and talented colleagues with whom I have worked over the years, and to my family for their support.