Cold As (Gradually Melting) Ice

The South Island tour continues…


Aside from driving south along the Westland coast, our goal for the day was to see some of the glaciers of the Southern Alps. Though much of the snow in the mountains melts in summer, don’t try to tell these bad boys to go away, because glaciers don’t melt. Except now they do, I guess. Slowly. Because of climate change. Actually not really that slowly. Ugh.

To really get up on the glaciers, you have to take a guided helicopter tour that deposits you up on the glacier. Since we’d had the chance to walk up on a glacier in the Canadian Rockies years back, we decided to pass on this and just take a hike up to the glaciers’ terminal faces.

After stopping in the town of Franz Josef, where (though some pretty ridiculous luck with the weather being windy in the morning and us getting to the visitor center at exactly the right time) we got to say a quick hello to my glacier guide friend Janet, we continued on to do the hike up to Franz Josef glacier, named in the 1800s for the Austrian emperor of the same name (obviously).

The glacier is retreating pretty quickly, as evidenced by markers and photos on the trail showing where it used to be. But you know, glaciers go in, glaciers go out…you can’t explain that.

Then it was on to Fox Glacier, where you can also walk up to the terminal face. Both walks were similar, less than an hour each way, fairly easy except for a few steeper hills.

While still near the glaciers, we took a trip over to Lake Matheson, a glacial lake not far away that happens to be well located to create a reflection of Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand. Unfortunately for us, that only happens when the lake is perfectly calm, and when we were there it was too ripply to see a reflection. Fortunately, it was still quite nice.

Heading Back East

After having our fun in Westland, we started heading back east towards Queensland, taking Haast Pass. There were numerous stopoffs along the way to see various waterfalls and rivers.

Along the way, we passed briefly through Mt. Aspiring National Park. I’ve heard amazing things about this particular national park, and, while we only saw a tiny part of it, I can see why it has such a good reputation (and I’ll have to go back to see the rest of it).

The Lakes

From Mt. Aspiring parks, the main highway heads south past two big awesome lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and you get the opportunity to drive alongside each of them.

We got to stop in the town of Wanaka itself, which had a nice lakefront and some good fish ‘n’ chips. It’s also the location of the next GSNZ geology conference, so I’m looking forward to getting back there for a lot longer next year, hopefully.

From there we finished things off for the day by heading west to get to Queenstown, passing Cardrona ski field along the way (have to come back during winter!).

As I noted (and will surely note again), it was a heck of a lot of driving, which was tiring, but the routes were so pretty and windy and fun that it was definitely worth the effort.


Looking at Rocks for Fun Instead of Work

Rather than going home for the holiday break this year, my parents decided to come to me instead (I’m happy to provide a similar excuse for any of you to take a vacation). After significant planning, we arranged their visit into two parts, a week first on the South Island and then just less than a week back up North.


What did I do first thing when they arrived on Christmas Eve? Take them to a volcano, of course!

Besides that, I took them around the city a bit–we had a day and a half to kill before flying to Christchurch. So we walked around CBD, went to the beach, and had a fun Christmas Eve dinner with some friends, etc. We even stopped at another volcano on the way to the airport!

And then, wearing our lack of Christianity on our sleeves, we flew down to Christchurch on Christmas night (appropriate city, eh?).

Arthur’s Pass

Our first goal was to get to the South Island’s west coast. That’s where it all goes down. Or something. Anyway, it meant driving through the Southern Alps to get to the coast on the other side.

Castle Hill (also Kura Tawhiti) was formed over millions of year from deposits of limestone back when New Zealand was under the sea. Years of deposition and then later erosion after the land had been uplifted led to the remaining limestone boulders stilling on top of the hills. Or, to you geologists, karst!

Apparently it’s a popular place for climbing, as evidenced by dudes climbing on stuff when we were there.

Once we were more solidly into the mountains we hit Arthur’s Pass, the area right in the middle of the Alps. The fact that they made a road through this place is pretty impressive (though there were even more impressive roads to come…). We also took a short hike to see Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall, and another nature hike that turned out to just be a walk along the highway…oh well, can’t win ’em all.


After not too long, we’d already punched all the way through to the west coast. Our aim was to head south towards the bottom of New Zealand (can I call Invercargill NZ’s butt? Sounds mean, I guess, but I do it with love!), but we first took a worthwhile detour a bit north past Greymouth (Westland’s biggest town) to see Punakaiki, also called the Pancake Rocks (and for good reason). While generally I’m not much of a limestone fan, I’ll give it a pass if it makes awesome rock formations like these.

After that we headed off to Hokitika, a first place to stop along the way.

The next morning we headed to Hokitika Gorge, which is…a big canyon thingy carved out by erosion? And there’s water in it? Maybe a bridge over or something? Cut me some slack, I’m no South Island geological expert (nor limestone or karst for that matter)!

From there it was on to the South Island’s famed glaciers…but that’s where we’ll pick up next time! Leave them wanting more! That’s what someone always said…


Just Me and the Big Dude

Toward the beginning of my PhD I won a scholarship from an organization that gives grants to students doing research in the Taranaki region, and as part of the bargain I agreed to come down to New Plymouth in early December to give a public lecture at the Puke Ariki, the city’s big cultural and natural history museum. I decided that while I was down there already I’d take the opportunity to do one last batch of fieldwork before the end of the year.

My co-supervisor at Victoria University of Wellington drove up and met me in Oakura (a small town in the northwest part of the peninsula), and we planned a couple days of exploring and sample collection.


Protip: When possible, do fieldwork with your supervisor(s). They tend to pay for cushier lodging and tastier food than when you do it yourself. 😉

I’ve already told you about looking for stratigraphic sections and learning to tell apart the different types of deposits that I look at during my fieldwork. And about mapping those deposits in different places. Naturally, the next step is to actually take samples of those different deposits to take back to the lab for testing.

I had already done a good bit of sample collection on the last trip (the one forever lost to the annals of my dead hard drive), but there was plenty more to do in the same (and new) places, so off we went back into the park, up the Puniho track, and into Maero Stream.

We started by climbing up toward the “type section” I’ve already told you about, but this time we decided to push on a bit farther and see what lays higher up the stream. The first thing we noticed on the way up was a really red outcrop, different from anything we’d seen so far. Farther on up we also found a potential good spot to get into and out of the riverbed, which might be good to know about for future trips. It would be very convenient to be able to follow the easy track much further along rather than having to climb up the rocky stream bed.

We stopped at the red unit again on the way down to take some samples. What does that mean, exactly? Well, basically, there’s a few different types.

  1. Matrix and clast samples: Basically, I just scoop a bunch of stuff that I think is well representative of the outcrop into a sandwich baggie. The matrix is the sandy stuff in between the clasts (the pebble to boulder rocks contained in the matrix).
  2. Oriented core: We use a drill (I’ll show more later) to take a little cylinder, roughly the diameter of a quarter (NZ/Euro 50c coin) and around 4-8 cm (2-4 in) deep.
  3. Oriented hand sample: When we can’t drill a hole in the field, instead we just take the rock home instead so we can drill a hole in it back in the lab.
  4. Charcoal: For radiocarbon dating you need stuff with lots of carbon. One thing with lots of carbon are burnt bits of trees, leaves, and twigs.

So notice I used the word “oriented” a few times in the sample names. That’s because for paleomagnetism direction is everything. Later in the lab we’ll be trying to figure out the direction of earth’s ancient magnetic field. But to do that, we need a reference point for the direction of the rock when it was deposited. So we spend a lot of time recording with compasses and marking the rocks with sharpies so we’ll be able to test accurately later on.

Another question you may have is “what if you don’t find any big enough rocks to take as oriented hand samples?” It’s a good question, and this time out we got to test another sampling method, where we hammered a little plastic box into the fine grained material and took an orientation of it (see picture above) in order to get a sample. It will be interesting to see if it works. We also found some little charcoal bits for the first time, which should be helpful.

After some pretty lousy weather on the first day, we got much better conditions on day two. Here, we found some good outcrops right along the road to ample, which meant we could test out our drill. Vroom vroom!

We only tested a couple times, but we drilled two useful cores. Funny thing was, the drill was tough to get started…but then once it got going we couldn’t get it to shut off! A Hanukkah miracle! Eventually we just had to remove all the fuel and let it run itself down.

After finishing fieldwork on the second day, my supervisor took off for home, and I went to do the actual purpose of my trip–the talk at the museum. Basically, I got to do my proposal defense, but slightly longer and for a broader audience. It was quite fun, a good chance to get to talk to people in the area and get their perspectives on the volcano. And of course a great chance to screen Geology: The Movie (provided here for your education and entertainment just in case you haven’t seen it or want to watch again).

When I finished with that, it was time to celebrate. Fancy dinner? Chill on the beach? Nah, how about we climb a volcano instead?

I took a drive around the northeast side of the volcano to a place where you can actually drive a decent ways into the park to the North Egmont Visitor Centre. As I got closer I willed the small bits of clouds that remained in the sky to drift away. “Show yourself, you majestic fucker!” And show himself he did.

From the visitor centre I started off on the summit track. While my field area is on the western side of the volcano, this is probably the easiest route to the top, and I imagine this is the way we go when we get around to doing fieldwork at the summit. For this trip, I wasn’t intending to go all the way up and back, that takes a full day. I just wanted some quality time with just me and Taranaki and to see how far I could get in an hour or so.

The track (as far as I took it) is well paved and easy to follow–that’s not to say it isn’t quite steep and strenuous all the same. And that’s the easy part! I got pretty high up, almost to the bottom of the volcano itself, but it’s quite the climb to get to the top. Still a bit too much snow to do it at the moment, as well, but hopefully I’ll get back there in January or February when things are clearer.

That just left me with a little more fieldwork to do on the final day before driving home, as well as one important pit stop on the way home.

With that, I’m done with fieldwork for the year. After wrapping things up at the office, I’m off on a holiday visit from my parents and a whirlwind tour around both the North and South Islands.

Have a good end of the year everyone, see you in 2016!

Two Day Trips and a Hard Drive Crash

What better way to take advantage of your fancy new set of wheels than to explore the bounty of Auckland region’s awesome stuff?


So fancy! But he/she/it still needs a proper name!

Auckland has quite a few nice regional parks with lots of neat hiking tracks and awesome views. Most of them are pretty easy to get to within an hour or so drive, making them great for day trips.

This post turned out mostly pictures and not too much history or description because, honestly, these are just pretty places that I don’t know all that much about. Hope you enjoy them.


The first of the three parks I’ve visited recently was probably my favorite. Tawharanui is a little peninsula on NZ’s east coast north of Auckland, almost all the way up to Northland (the region that goes all the way to the northern tip of the country). It has a refuge for birds, cool beaches, big rocks to climb on, and pretty shells to find.

After a hour’s drive north on Route 1 (and a detour along a more scenic coastal road), you drive out onto the peninsula and lose elevation until you get to the park entrance.

Once you get into the park, you immediately get to see the awesome beaches and nice views of the Hauraki Gulf to the south.

We just looked around Tawharanui beach for a short while before heading farther into the park. The weather was a bit all over the place, so it was overcast and a bit misty at many points during the day.

The road through the park passes through a bird sanctuary with some cool blue and black long-necked birds, finally ending closer to the north side of the peninsula. While the beach on the south side was a bit rockier, the north side was a more traditional long strip of light colored sand.

Not sure if it has a name, but there was a large rock that we climbed up on towards the western end of the beach that gave pretty good views of the rest of the area.

After fully exploring the western end of the beach, we found a trail leading east along the beach towards the end of the peninsula. Along the way were some cool sea caves and ridges to climb.

We continued over the ridge to the second part of the beach, where we spent quite a while looking for awesome shells, and we found plenty! As you can see, by this point the weather had gotten quite nice (for the moment), great for sitting around and enjoying the scenery.

We actually spent so long hanging around this part of the beach that the tide started to go out! Things looked quite a bit different during our walk back to the car.

Since we didn’t have time to hike all the way out to the end of the track, I definitely need to come back here again to see the rest of the park!


The second park I visited was in Mahurangi West, in the same direction as Tawharanui, just not quite as far north. This was a little less impressive, more of a nice place to have a picnic (as some people were) than a place to go hiking. There were just a couple short walks that we took to explore.

We did the two main hikes in the park which both led to views overlooking the water and took a little walk along the beach.


Disaster Strikes!

I said 3 regional parks, didn’t I, so where are the pictures from the last trip to Karekare/Mercer Bay? Gone into the aether, unfortunately…

My hard drive died last week, and though I was able to replace it successfully and restore my most recent backup, I hadn’t yet backed up my most recent photos, which sadly means they’re all gone.

More sadly is that I was next going to do another sciency post on my latest round of fieldwork in Taranaki and my first round of labwork in Wellington. Sadly, those are long gone as well, so it’ll have to wait for the next time. Luckily, that shouldn’t be too long, as I’m going to Wellington next week for labwork and a conference and back to Taranaki for some fieldwork just a couple weeks later.

Meet Tyrannakai, King of the Volcanoes

Fieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldworkfieldwork! Woot woot!

If you remember back when I started this thing, I promised a healthy dose of science and geology to go with the pretty pictures. Unfortunately, except for one trip report in June, I haven’t been able to follow through on that promise particularly well. But that ends today! Inform the men and women, it’s geologizin’ time! Prepare to be scienced! If you have a weak constitution or an un-curious mind, please leave now, because wimmity-wam-wam-wazzle hallelujah it is fieldwork season, and all is well with world!

Assembling the G-Team (G is for geology)

Finally presented with several consecutive days of good weather forecast, I planned a three-day field trip and asked along lots of geology and non-geology friends to be field assistants. Many jumped at the chance to do a little tramping and I ended up with a crack international team of doctors (the geology kind), engineers, PhD students, and more! Overqualified for a preliminary light field trip? Probably. Overqualified for having fun? Not a chance!

The goal for this trip was to scope out the area that where I’ll be doing most of my field work, get an eye for telling the difference between different types of volcanic deposits, and pick some good spots to come back and sample another time. After driving down, we spent the rest of the first day looking for some huge debris avalanche deposits along the coast (a side project). It took a bunch of tries driving up and down some little roads, but eventually we found what we were looking for.

For both nights of the trip, we camped in a small clearing right at the edge of the national park. As long as the weather is good, that’s definitely going to be a great cost-saving measure going forward. Camping right next to cars is easy since you don’t have to carry stuff far before you set it up, and cooking and sharing an evening with friends outside only makes the trip even more enjoyable.


Our campsite. Pretty nice view, huh? Also, can you guess where the farmland ends and Egmont National Park starts? Hint: it’s as obvious as it looks.

The Real Work Begins

The goal of the second day was to go into the park and find stratigraphic sections of the deposits I’m going to be working with in the future so I could get practice looking at them, describing them, and deciding what type of deposit they are. A stratigraphic section is basically a place where you can see lots of different layers of rocks or volcanic deposits all stacked on top of each other in one place. It’s important to study these because it’s the easiest place to learn what all the different layers look like, since in many places only some of the units will be present and it isn’t nearly as easy to tell them apart.

Once we found Maero Stream, we hiked up and down a bit looking for the “type section”, which is basically the very best stratigraphic section anyone has found of a particular sequence of deposits, and therefore the best place to learn about them.

What I actually mean when I say “I look at rocks for a living”

Looking at a section is a multi-step process that starts with seeing what you can learn about the outcrop from a distance. How many different layers are there? How thick is each one? What can you tell about each layer on a large scale? Basically, ask as many questions as I can think of and see how many I can answer.

That’s followed by going up close and looking at each layer individually. How big are the biggest rocks in a layer? How small are the smallest ones? What type of rocks are they? Do the rocks get bigger or smaller as you look up or down? Are similar size rocks grouped together or is it totally random? Answering these questions may help me figure out other things about the deposit, like where it came from, how hot it was, and more.

After looking at the type section, we went on to look for some “reference sections,” which are basically more good spots to see a particular formation, just not quite the best ones. That involved crossing some more streams and led, finally, to some awesome views of the big guy himself.

Getting to the reference section involved hiking up the Stony River (also called the Hangatahua River), the largest, wettest river in the area by a solid margin. Even on this dry day it was pretty big, and will probably be pretty hard to cross except in the driest of times, which meant I had to look at a lot of stuff from a distance.

And that was pretty much it for the day other than the hike out. Part of doing this kind of fieldwork involves being patient and being happy with what you got done for the day. While there will be some days where I take tons of samples or look at a bunch of sites really close together, there will be others like this one where you walk pretty far just to see one particular site and have to be satisfied with that as a productive day.

The goal of the next day was to check out a few spots I had marked off outside the park to look at a different unit. While the Maero Fm. we were looking at the previous day is only up to 800 years old and from the volcano’s most recent active period, this day we’d be looking at the Warea Formation, deposits from activity closer to 10,000 years ago. The idea is to look for comparisons between the two units from different time periods but in the same area–how were the conditions similar or different the last time the volcano erupted in the same location?

So we jumped in the car and gave chase. Alright, so we weren’t driving all that fast. And the things were were chasing were inanimate objects that have been there for a few thousand years and probably aren’t going anywhere. Still, it’s more fun to think of myself as a rock bounty hunter tracking down my quarry (bad geology pun alert!)?

Whereas the deposits we looked at in the park mostly showed characteristics of a hot pyroclastic flow, the things we looked at outside the park looked different, more likely being a cold, wet lahar. Except, there was more to see…

There was one unit that had some characteristics of both hot and cold deposits! Tricky, indeed. That’s where my paleomagnetic methods should come in handy. Later on, when we come back and sample, I should be able to do pmag lab work that will give me a better idea of what type of deposit we were looking at.

With the hard work mostly over, we decided to relax and eat our lunch at the beach. And by beach I mean more rocks. Also, we made a friend!

And there’s another field trip in the books. Can’t wait to get back with some sampling gear to start the real work!

Why Did the Kiwi Cross the Road?

I’ve done a bunch of small things over the last several weeks, some for fun, some for work, and some for a combination of the two (the fact that the two tend to overlap is nice). These events were of varying levels of photogeneity (is it a real word? Don’t care, it should be.) resulting in varying amounts of photos (down to zero), so enjoy accordingly.

Volcanic Science & Risk Management Workshop

To mark the anniversary of one of Ruapehu’s larger recent eruptions in 1995-6, NZ’s Department of Conservation had a short workshop held in Whakapapa at the base of the volcano. It was my first “conference” besides AGU and it couldn’t have been more different. Rather than airplane hangar-sized rooms full of posters and hundreds of talks of all types, it was just one room of maybe 50 volcanologists. It was a really interesting chance to see the history of volcanology and the progress it’s made in New Zealand over the last 20 years. It was also a great chance for me to meet lots of volcano people from around NZ. There were a number of students and professors from most of the major universities in the country, as well as people from GNS (the USGS of NZ) and DOC (dept of conservation). Plenty of names I’d heard of but not yet met and people I may work with in the future.

One thing that was not different from AGU was the friendliness and camaraderie of the volcanology community. Everyone was keen to make new friends and to discuss geology and other stuff over a few drinks.

Skiing for Fun

While coming to Auckland in April basically meant I didn’t get to have any summer in 2015, it did mean I got two ski seasons, which is at least a small consolation. It took a while to finally get out on the mountain this winter, but we finally did it in late August.

While there’s lots of options for skiing on the South Island, on the North Island there are only two main options, Turoa and Whakapapa. They’re both located on the flanks of Ruapehu (skiing on a volcano! Oh. Yeah.), Whakapapa on the north side and Turoa on the southwest. We went for a couple days to Turoa, the smaller of the two.

The snow conditions weren’t unlike those in New England, where I usually ski. No powder to speak of, scrapey in places, but plenty of spots with pretty nice snow. The terrain was quite a bit different, however. Whereas most places I’m used to skiing have discrete trails separated by forest, on Ruapehu it’s pretty much all one open field with no real signage and “trails” only really dictated by the terrain. As a result, your path down the mountain is limited only by your imagination (also cliffs).

There were some nice bowls and higher difficulty runs off to the sides from the lifts, and it made for a couple fun and exhausting days of skiing.

Going to the Beach

Not long after I arrived in New Zealand I went on a hiking trip and ended up watching the sunset over Piha beach, but didn’t actually get to check out the beach itself. That was remedied a few weeks back when we took a trip over there, just under an hour out to the west from Auckland. It was a cold, bleak, windy day, so maybe not the best for beach-going. We took a walk around, waded carefully through a shallow stream or two (or tried to, at least–it was deeper than it looked in some spots!), and took a climb up Lion Rock, a big eroded volcanic thingy (about all the detail I can offer. Educational, no?), though we couldn’t get all the way to the top.

Afterwards we took a short hike nearby to Kitekite Falls, a pretty impressive waterfall. There was a pool at the bottom that might’ve been nice in warmer weather. It was pretty cold, though, so we just took a good look around and took off.

Skiing for Work

So here is an instance of work being awesome. As I’ve mentioned, lahars are a big hazard on New Zealand volcanoes. On Ruapehu, big debris flows have caused major damage in the past, and it’s a particular issue there because people are skiing on the volcano. Which means that there are quite frequently lots of people in the danger zones for lahars. To mitigate this, the Department of Conservation has developed a pretty nifty lahar warning system. If something were to happen, it should trip the alarm setting off sirens on the ski slopes and loud announcements advising people to ski to high ground. This is supplemented by educational material located around the ski area, on the lifts, and in the lodges.


You see this one while you’re peeing in the bathroom. It’s nice to have a captive audience!

A warning system is only good if it actually works, though, so DOC tests the system a couple times a year. We had the good fortune to meet the people running the test at the Whakapapa conference a month or so earlier and were invited to help out.

Basically, the plan was to set off the sirens and warnings and see how it went. Our job was to wait in certain spots to see how well we could hear the sirens and to observe how people reacted. The last part of the job (the exciting part) was to ski down quickly and talk to people who ignored the warnings to find out why.

It was really cool to see hazard mitigation in action and see how people reacted (mostly correctly, believe it or not). The area I was responsible for was pretty small, but it was interesting how at any given time the amount of people varied widely. At the time the sirens blew there were only a couple people in “danger”, but if it had happened maybe five minutes earlier there would have been around 30 or more ski school kids. That would’ve been pretty interesting to see! I definitely hope I get to participate in this project again the next year.


Just last week I took a trip down to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. Part of the trip was for work–I was meeting one of my supervisors and some other people who can help me with my project as well as checking out the paleomag lab at Victoria University of Wellington that I will be spending quite a bit of time in during my PhD. I was also visiting some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while.

Wellington seems like a really neat city, lots of really high hills (more dramatic in its hillyness than Auckland), crazy windy weather, narrow streets that are stressful to drive on, and a pretty harbor and beaches (covered in pretty shells and weird jellyfish). Unfortunately, I forgot my phone charger, so I couldn’t take any pictures. All I got was this one cool museum exhibit where they put out a table covered in white legos and let people build landscapes.

The only picture of my trip to Wellington. Oops.

The only picture of my trip to Wellington.

Luckily, I get to go back in November for a conference, so I can hopefully have a little more to show for it then.

Maybe This Will Make it Up to You

Sorry about no Wellington pictures. Enjoy this photo of the most New Zealandy road sign ever with a volcano and sunset in the background instead.


As Kiwi as it gets

The Pinnacle of Kiwi Adventuring

There’s so much to explore on the North Island alone, let alone all of New Zealand, and I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’m doing my best dammit! Since I haven’t yet reached the workload I had during a lot of my master’s (mostly since I have no data to analyze or samples to run yet), I can still get away fairly often to see new things.

A few weekends ago I went with a group of friends to do a tramping trip on the Coromandel Peninsula, a pointy bit of land on the other side of the Hauraki Gulf from Auckland (in theory you can see one from the other in good weather). There’s lots of spiky-pointy-mountainy bits there and some good trails for hiking.

We got a bit of a late start, but it was okay because our goal was just to hike in to the Pinnacles Hut for the night and then to actually see stuff the next day. It meant a bit of hiking in the dark, but the trail is pretty well maintained and we had head torches, so it wasn’t too bad, more long than difficult–took us around four hours to get to the palace of a hut–bunks for up to 80 people, gas stoves, and more! Did I mention the hut system in NZ is awesome?

When we got to the hut, we already had some lovely nachos for dinner waiting for us, courtesy of chefs Tim and Manu who ran ahead to start cooking since the rest of us were making slow time. Talk about tramping in luxury! We passed around some chocolate (an absolute necessity for tramping) and tea (and other stuff…) and had deep discussions about geology.

The next morning, we got up nice and early to see the sunrise from the top of the Pinnacles. It’s only about a 45 minute trek from the hut to the top, but it’s a lot more difficult than the previous night’s hike–lots of ladders and tight spots and big rocks to climb over. A combination of head torches and the slowly brightening sky made it a bit easier.

At the top, the view was pretty nice. There were a few different spots to look from, perched up on a rock, out on a ledge, out on another ledge. We got to see the valleys and peaks light up as the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean.

I did a bit of climbing around myself to get all the different views. The pinnacles themselves are somewhat eroded volcanic plugs, so there’s a mix of volcanic stuff left over, ignimbrites, etc. If you want to know more you’d have to ask a specialist.

It seemed like pretty much everyone in the hut got up for the sunrise. Good on ya, peoples!

It was fun to look around an imagine Led Zeppelin playing one of their Lord of the Rings-y songs.



After that, there wasn’t that much else to do, just head back down to the hut and collect our things.

After that, we headed back out, over bridges, down rocky staircases, over streams, and back home.

Actually, it was kind of nice to get back from a trip in the afternoon for once instead of late after midnight like usual.

Smells Like Kiwi Spirit (and Sulfur)

While the last few weeks have been pretty dull in terms of work–just trying to get ahead on my proposal writing and literature review–I’ve been able to get away to explore more weekend than not. In the last few weeks, I’ve gone away three times. Two parts adventure, one part science. Or perhaps all parts science. Science always…

A few weekends ago, my friends Tim and Annika organized a mountain biking trip to Rotorua, a city a few hours southeast of Auckland. Now, those of you who know me know that I am dangerously (hilariously?) bad at biking. So after trying to explain to my friends on the trip that, no, I won’t just figure it out and be fine once I get going, they suggested I just borrow the car and explore on my own during the day, then hang out with them after they finish. Sounded like a great plan to me!

Unfortunately, the weather on the first of the two days was super bad (which made me even more secure in my decision not to try to bike), so I decided to check out the city itself (about 60,000 people, 10th biggest in NZ). After getting some coffee and walking around in the driving rain, I made it out to Lake Rotorua itself.

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Lake Rotorua like many other lakes on the North Island is actually a volcanic crater (part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone that I’ve mentioned many times before) that was formed by an eruption over a couple hundred thousand years ago. It’s the second biggest lake in the North Island, though it’s pretty shallow. And I might have pondered all of this, except I was cold and soaked and wanted to get on with my day, so I hightailed it back to the car.

I decided to do a scenic drive to some of the other volcanic lakes in the area ending at the most important, Lake Tarawera. The rain made the drive a bit less scenic, I figured I’d have to come back again sometime when it was nicer.

And that was it for my exploration mostly. It was more fun than it sounds/looks, I promise. And then, of course, once I explored all day and my friends biked in the rain/mud/hail, the sun came out for the rest of the day. Peeeerfect. There was still fun to be had, though. Rotorua is very thermally active, so it has lots of natural hot pools, which we took advantage of.

Lake Tarawera is located right next to Mt. Tarawera, a volcano that is responsible (in 1886) for one of the largest historic eruptions to take place in New Zealand. Unfortunately I didn’t get much of a view of it because of the weather.

Biking must’ve been pretty exhausting, because the next day I had a few friends join me for my exploration. The weather was much nicer, so we ended up doing a few of the same things again.

First, though, we took a quick look around a Kuirau Park, a thermal area located in the city. Think Yellowstone-like sulfur-smelling, steaming pools, only a lot less impressive.

Then we took a drive back to Blue Lake and Lake Tarawera. It was still pretty cold and windy, but much sunnier, so it was a much nicer view of everything.

Finally, we took a trip to Whakarewarewa Forest (say that a few times!), also known at the Redwoods. I learned at the visitor centre that in an interesting twist given New Zealand’s current obsession with stamping out any non-native potentially invasive species (“It’s foreign! Kill it! Kill it!”), at one time the government was just kind of planting random things to see what would grow well, and one of those things was the California Redwood. Inseed, it did grow well and now there’s a whole little forest of it in Rotorua. Pretty neat. My theory is that if one day this history is lost, people will look at the Redwoods and assume that whole story happened in reverse and that Redwoods originated in New Zealand since it is the place known for the awesome interesting stuff.

And that was kind of it! There were a couple of geysery-type areas, but they are pretty expensive to visit, and I’ve been told they put dish soap in the geysers to make them erupt (filthy cheaters!) which kind of takes away from the natural awesomeness of it all.

All in all, Rotorua was neat, but a little touristy. But the next place I went was definitely a lot less touristy, so come back for that!

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Okay, There Are Some Mountains High Enough)

The weather in winter may not be good for fieldwork on Mt. Taranaki, but it’s definitely good for wintery things in those select regions of the North Island that actually get snow. A weekend ago I went on a trip back down to Tongariro National Park with my friends Tim and Annika (and a couple of their tramping friends from Wellington) to do some mountaineering. Mountaineering is a really broad term that basically means what it sounds like–climbing mountains. It can involve a whole range of tools and difficulty levels, can be done on foot, on skis, with full climbing gear, etc. Since I and some of the others on the trip weren’t too experienced with this kind of thing, the trip we did was fairly low difficulty and was a good chance for us to learn to use some of the gear. Doing these trips requires some measure of flexibility–you have to be willing to change your plans based on the conditions in order to be safe. The couple members of our group who were more experienced were good at analyzing the avalanche warnings and looking at snow cover and deciding what the best climbs to do on each day were. Based on this, we decided to climb Mt. Tongariro on the first day, coming in from the western side. After starting off on the track, we pretty quickly veered off to take a more direct route straight up the mountain.

At first, we climbed a slightly steep slope to get up on a ridge where we could just walk up a gentle incline for a while, but after a certain point things got a bit steeper and gradually snowier. Still, for a while it was just climbing through snow, making sure to keep good footing.

At some point, it became too steep and slippery to make very much progress, so we turned around and went home.

Just kidding! That’s the point at which we strapped crampons to our boots and took out our ice axes. I’d used crampons before, but not like this–it was amazing how suddenly you could just walk straight up steep icy slopes without worrying about your footing. It feels kind of like being Spiderman! Meanwhile, you use the ice axe to keep your balance so you can lean uphill without falling over. You can also use it to stop yourself if you slide.

And just like that, we were at the top with a great view of all sorts of geologic goodness. Of course we could see Mt. Ngauruhoe in the distance as usual, but below us was Red Crater, part of the Mt. Tongariro volcanic system, which erupted in the early 20th century. We could also see Blue Lake, a former explosion crater that’s now full of water. Unfortunately, while the snow cover all around was pretty, it meant that the red of Red Crater and the blue of Blue Lake were completely snow-covered and frozen over. Guess I’ll have to do this climb again in summer in order to get a different view of the top!

Most exciting for me, however, was the ability to see the steam from Te Maari crater in the distance. Te Maari is spot of New Zealand’s most recent eruption, in 2012. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a volcanologist, climbing around on just about any volcano is awesome in and of itself. But for me (and I’d imagine many other volcanologists), getting a look at visible signs of life from the volcanoes I study is the best part and a reminder of why I am doing what I do (as if I need a reminder!).

Once we were at the top and had a bit of lunch, we took some time to practice self-arrest techniques, something important to know for doing more difficult mountaineering. Basically self-arrest is how to stop yourself from sliding too far if you fall. There’s a way to do it for each way of falling–on your front, back, and even upside down–but all of the ways involve bending your knees back, getting on your stomach, and digging in the pick end of your axe in a certain way to stop yourself.

After taking a last look around at the top (and collecting all our wayward gear), we headed back down the hill.


Going downhill in crampons has it’s own technique (walk like a cowboy!), but it’s pretty easy, and we made quick work of the way down, though we still had to walk the very last bit out in the dark.

Here’s the part where rolling with the punches comes into play. We had actually planned to drive towards Turoa ski field, one of the lift areas on Ruapehu, and hike into Blythe Hut (similar to the one I stayed in on a previous trip to Ruapehu) that night so we could get an early start climbing the next day. However, by the time we got to the access road, it was closed well below the elevation of the trailhead due to ice. Rather than taking an extremely long hike in the dark only to arrive at the hut well after midnight, we decided to stay nearby and start from a different location the next day. All in all, probably a good decision. The next day we put chains on our tires and drove all the way up to Turoa. It’s a pretty cool ski area, and I’ll definitely have to go back and actually ski there sometime. But today was about climbing!

Because the climb was basically parallel to the ski slope, to me it was actually a lot lower difficulty than the previous day’s climb, even if it might have technically been farther and higher. The problem was just the cumulative effort of the two days meant we were pretty tired as we continued our climb. Climbing two volcanoes in one weekend had been pretty ambitious, and some of our group (myself included) was probably moving a bit slow to get to the top in a timely fashion. The weekend was a good lesson in pushing yourself vs. knowing your limits, and in this case we decided the right choice was to stop a few hundred meters short of the summit at the top of the last lift.

That didn’t mean the fun was over, though! After a hot chocolate break, we started working our way back down the mountain. But why be boring and walk down? We’re on a ski slope, after all! Instead, we took a seat (sometimes on plastic pack-liner sheets, sometimes on our butts) and bum-slid all the way down! Wheeeeeee!

The lighting on the way down was pretty neat, too, so I got off my bum occasionally to roll around on the ground taking photos of stuff.

We finally got to the bottom at the very end of the ski day–the snow cats were coming down with us. It was too bad we didn’t make it all the way to the top, but 1.75 or so volcanoes is pretty ok by my count, and it just means we can come back and do it again sometime to make it all the way!

A Mission Statement (and a Smorgasbord of Other Stuff)

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks, and will probably continue to be so, in terms of geology. A combination of factors (weather, people’s availability, etc.) mean we probably won’t do another trip for a bit, so I can talk about a mishmash of other random stuff in the meantime.

So what are you actually doing?

I’ve mentioned bits here and there so far about the work I’m doing, but I haven’t yet really explained what it is I’m doing in New Zealand, so here goes… While understanding the mechanics of how volcanoes erupt is extremely important and interesting,  and lava and explosions are super cool, the part of volcanic eruptions that interest me the most is the way in which they impact the people living nearby (and not so nearby). I want to look at how the hazards that come from volcanoes affect people and how to communicate to people the dangers they face as a result of living near an active volcano.

For my project I’m focusing on a particular volcano, Mt. Taranaki, and a particular type of hazard, lahars. As I may have mentioned at some point, lahar is the general geological term (taken from Indonesian) for a volcanic mudslide. What makes lahars different from other volcanic hazards is that they can (like lava, ash clouds, etc.) happen during an eruption, but they can also happen shortly after an eruption, or during a period in which there is no eruption at all. This is because they can be triggered by all sorts of things, from eruptions to earthquakes to snowmelt to excessive rainfall. They can travel at speeds up to 60 mph and distances over 100 mi from the volcano, so they’re obviously pretty dangerous.

What I’m doing is using a variety of methods including sedimentology, geochemistry, and paleomagnetism, to reconstruct the history of lahars on Mt. Taranaki. Basically, where did they go, when did they go there, and how often did they go to different locations? I’ll get into the methods more as I actually do them, but it always starts with going into the field. We’ll be hiking around the river catchments to find lahar deposits and then taking good notes, photos, and samples when we find them. Hopefully the result will be a better understanding of the hazards posed by the volcano, which we will then communicate to the people living in towns and farms on the flanks of Mt. Taranaki.

While I’m in the office, I mostly read lots academic papers that relate to my research and try to compile all the useful information from them in an organized way. I also look at maps and create plans for future fieldwork. For example, based on papers I’ve read I’ve picked out a number of sites to go look at on our next trip (whenever that is). Once we’ve taken a good look at different spots and picked the best ones, we’ll gather our equipment (hopefully in August or September) and go collect some samples to take back to the lab for various tests.

So what are you actually doing? (Non-geology edition)

In between planning more research trips and getting work done at the university, I’ve had time to get around and outside of Auckland a bit more. Whether it’s just taking a walk, playing with all the awesome cats that seem to hang out on my street (and getting to work late as a result), or checking out some of the local establishments, it’s good to see new parts of the city whenever I get the chance.

For example, there’s a really nice French market pretty close to my house that I go to every weekend that has awesome producey type stuff and awesome Italian cheeses. And there’s a nice walk that I can take to or from work though Auckland Domain (a massive park) if I’m not in a hurry and the weather is nice.

For getting out of the city, a couple weekends ago I took a trip with some friends to Muriwai beach on along the coast about an hour west of Auckland. It was a nice black sand beach to take a walk along, and there were lots of people kite surfing on some pretty rough looking waves.

And I wouldn’t be a geologist if I didn’t spend at least a couple moments geeking out over the cool dunes and ripples and stuff.

On another recent weekend, we took a trip to the beach house (called a Bach in New Zealand, see below) of a friend. It was a chance to head east of Auckland, I hadn’t gone in that direction yet. After the insanity of Houghton winter and a particularly harsh NJ winter over the last two years, I wasn’t really looking forward to skipping summer and immediately having another winter upon arriving in NZ. But if “winter’ and “beach weather” can sometimes be synonymous here, I guess I can’t complain.

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A quick lesson in NZ English. Study up, there will be a quiz later.

The Kiwi accent and vocabulary is definitely distinct. In terms of accent, out of American, British, and Australian, it’s probably closest to Australian, but very clearly different once you hear it enough. And in terms of vocabulary, it has an interesting mix of words from other types of English (siding with American over British English more often than you’d expect), and plenty of unique words on top of that. Here are a few of the ones I’ve encountered so far just for fun:

Bach – A beach house. Doesn’t have to be particularly fancy, not just for rich people.

Superette/Dairy – A corner store/convenience store.

Scroggin – Definitely my favorite new word. Kiwi for trail mix.

Four wheel drive – SUV (and a mini van is a people-mover).

Pissing down– Raining really hard.

Flash – As an adjective instead of flashy, showy, etc.

Yum – As an adjective instead of yummy, ie. “That dish is so yum!”

Several foods/cooking terms – Bell pepper = capsicum, zucchini = courgette, granola = muesli, ribeye = scotch fillet, broil (us) = grill (nz), grill (us) = barbecue (nz),  ketchup = tomato sauce (pretty much, at least), sweet potato = kumara, kiwi = kiwifruit (to distinguish from the bird and the people!), entree (us) = main (nz), appetizer (us) = entree (nz), jello (us) = jelly (nz), jelly (us) = jam (nz)

Tramping – Hiking, but sort of more serious than just day-hiking. Stuff at outdoor shops would be called tramping gear.

Keen – Enthusiastic or interested. You’d really commonly say “I’d be keen” to go somewhere/do something.

Good on ya, mate – Praise if someone says something you approve of or does something good. This is one of those stereotypical ones that are just fun to see that people really do say, like when I got to Italy and realized people actually do say Mamma mia!

And that’s the deal!

Slow times, but I’m still trying to take a trip or two somewhere when I can. In the meantime, I can work on more mundane stuff like getting an NZ driver’s license (almost done), finding a place to play tennis (and people to play with; still working on it), and watching the world cup at work instead of working (though I guess that form of procrastination is no longer available. Yay America!).