Boom! Boom! Explosions!


Mission: See a Real Volcanic Eruption

Country: Vanuatu

Island: Tanna

Volcano: Yasur

Last August, I was presented with a can’t-miss opportunity. My officemate, Ben, who shares a supervisor with me, has an awesome PhD project working in Vanuatu. As the main part of his project, he planned to live at the base of the volcano, collecting a whole series of measurements, for three months. This includes stuff like seismic (earthquake) data, thermal (infrared) images of eruptions, gas measurements, and physical observations. For details on the project, watch the video above.

As you might expect, a project with this many facets is too big for one person to do alone. Ben (along with his supervisors) planned the project and held the responsibility of keeping things up and running the whole time, but he needed some help setting things up at the beginning and doing the work all along. To do this, my supervisor sent several of us in the department out to help over the course of the trip. I was offered the chance to go at the very start and help things set up.

Did I mention Yasur is basically the most consistently active volcano in the world? It’s been erupting more or less constantly for over 1000 years. As a volcanologist who’d never seen a live eruption before, do you think I could pass that up? Not a chance!

We spent the first couple of days in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital on the island of Efate (Vanuatu is made up of around 80 islands). It has about 40,000 people, and, while maybe not as “modern” as you’d get in New Zealand, it’s as urban as you’re going to get in Vanuatu (and many things we had access to there would’ve been the height of luxury during the fieldwork). We had to sort the logistics of getting all of Ben’s scientific equipment from there over to Tanna, one of the outer islands where Yasur volcano is located. Luckily, in between running back and forth between shipping agencies, we also had a bit of time to explore.

I also got my first taste of Bislama, the local language. Vanuatu has over 100 different indigenous languages, the most per capita of any country in the world. There’s a decent amount of English and French spoken (they are both official languages along with Bislama) in addition to the indigenous ones, but Bislama is the one that brings everyone together. It’s a creole of French and English, with a bit of grammar and vocabulary from each. While confusing at first, it actually makes a lot of sense when you read the sentences out loud, and it’s a lot of fun to try to understand.

From Vila, we took a little Twin Otter plane (you could look right into the cockpit) over to Tanna to start our real work.

The volcano is in the southeastern part of the island, so we took a slow pickup truck ride over there from the airport (on the west coast near Lenakel, the largest town on the island…which is so small I can’t even find a population estimate on the internet). To get a good start, we quickly headed up the volcano that evening to get a first view of the fireworks…unfortunately, it took a bit to figure out how to take good pictures of the explosions, so you’ll just have to be patient (or scroll down if you can’t wait!). In the meantime we settled into our lodging at Jungle Oasis Bungalows.

It’s a nice place, but pretty basic. Don’t come out here expecting modern amenities. No hot water, electricity on generator power for just a few hours every evening, pretty simple food, lots of pretty large insects. For a week and a half, it made the fieldwork that much more involved, and even a bit fun. For three months? Let’s just say I’m not jealous of Ben on that front. Still, it was great to have real beds and a (mostly) stable roof over our heads, and Kelson, the owner, is super ambitious and entrepreneurial, so improvements are constantly being made–he apparently built a restaurant in the couple months after I left, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find things completely different if I ever go out there again!

But you want science and volcanoes, don’t you? So did we! We started right into it the next day, hiking all around the volcano to set up some equipment and scope out sites for other bits.

And then we got to the top and got to see the fun explosions! Yaaaaay!

We took advantage of the presence of Shane and Jen, Ben’s supervisors at University of Auckland, to set up all our equipment over the next few days. That involved a trip to grab all our gear that had come over on a ferry and trekking more around the volcano to get the best spots for everything. It also involved a shovel, lots and lots of duct tape, some ants, and a lot of witty scientific banter.

As a reward for our hard work, we decided to go watch the fireworks again. This time I had my shit together so I could provide you with pretty pictures!

We also had to set up the thermal cameras. Since these see infrared light, they can see the eruption’s heat signal even if it is too cloudy or ashy to see with a normal camera or a human eye. It was pretty crazy working right on the volcano’s edge with the eruptions going on. Someone definitely always had an eye on the ballistics and the plume for safety!

Another important part of our job was the gas measurements. To do this, we have to travel back and forth underneath the ash plume to measure how much of certain volcanic gases are in it. On lucky days I got to sit on the back of Kelson’s pickup truck and drive back and forth quickly multiple times to get measurements while Ben operated it from inside. On not so lucky days, we had to walk back and forth across the ash plain on foot, one of us holding the computer while the other held the FLYSPEC.

After Shane and Jen left, it was just Ben and me for the next week. We continued all of our measurements and observations daily. As exciting as it was, it was also routine. Every morning, climb the volcano, sit and observe for two hours while taking notes, check the thermal cameras. Then head back down, out to the ash plain to do gas measurements and collect ash samples. It was really cool to see the volcano change in behavior over the course of the week, sometimes explosive, sometimes more ashy.

…but now you’ve been patient, waiting for the pretty pictures. So here they are.

We didn’t go up to the summit every night, but definitely did a few more times, because it was just too good opportunity to miss.

Finally, at the end of the last night, I found the perfect location for a photo. The activity had died down quite a bit, so I had to be patient, but eventually it paid off.

And with that, my two weeks of service were done! I left Ben to stick it out for another 10. Luckily he had some great helpers take my place.

Another fun part of the trip was making the movie at the beginning of this post. I spent a lot of the trip filming everything I thought might be interesting (and probably annoying the crap out of everybody else). Then, toward the end of my stay, I made Ben sit for some formal interviews that turned into the narration of the video. Editing it all together at the end was a good excuse to continue watching explosions for some time even after I’d returned!

Note: All photos with me in them were taken by Ben, all photos with me not in them were taken by me.

 

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.

Auckland

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.

Westland

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…

 

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.

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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!).

I Like Feijoas (and Other Interesting Stories)

Exploring the Neighborhood

Now that I’ve been living here almost a month, I’ve had the chance to get a better feel for Auckland, explore my neighborhood, get started with my studies, and pick up on some small things that might be different from back home.

Once I finished moving into my flat, I took the opportunity to walk around Parnell and the adjacent neighborhood, Newmarket. Parnell seems like the place to go for bars and restaurants of varying fanciness, while Newmarket is upscale area that seems to be a major shopping center for Auckland and also where my nearest supermarket is.

Timeout for NZ difference number one! And it’s an obvious one that affects you in a less obvious way. Like in England, they drive on the left side of the road here. Of course once I eventually drive that will affect me in a big way. However, it might be even more important when walking. Remember when you were taught to look both ways before crossing the street? Look left, then right. It’s surprisingly hard to relearn it in the opposite order, especially when trying to figure out where cars are going to be turning from or where they’re going to be entering and leaving roundabouts. I haven’t become a pancake yet, though! So far, so good.

The food in the supermarket here is actually surprisingly similar–compared with Europe, it’s actually super easy to even find the same brands of most things that we have in America (though I’ve been told some things taste different, Snickers bars were the example given. I’ll have to do a test for science!). There’s a couple things I’ve encountered here that are new to me, though.

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One of my first days in the office, there was a big bowl of feijoas up for grabs. What are feijoas? They’re awesome little green fruits that you eat by cutting open and scooping out with a spoon or your teeth. Sort of like a Kiwifruit, but they have their own unique taste, and it’s really good! I’m hooked! Unfortunately, I’ve been told they’re only in season for a couple months, and that time is almost over, so I’d better enjoy as many as I can fast.

Be honest, you’d be skeptical of “tasty” flavored cheese too, wouldn’t you? I assumed that in the same way we in America give our worst cheese the best name, they would do the same in New Zealand. Thankfully, not the case. For some reason it’s what they call sharp cheddar cheese. Tasty indeed.

Marmite (and its Australian cousin vegemite) is super polarizing. It’s a super-salty yeast-based sandwich spread that most people only like if they grew up eating it. My flatmate let me try some the other day and, while I can’t say I loved it, I’m not ready to give up on it. It tastes kind of like eating a really salty beer, if that statement makes any sense at all. I’ll have to revisit it sometime.

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Getting Out and Around

In the months leading up to coming to Auckland I was lucky enough to make a few Kiwi friends who are in Auckland now and are really cool (and have cars) and are willing to show me new places that I might not get to on my own.

Last weekend I went with a couple of friends hiking west of Auckland (it’s good to know you don’t have to go too far outside the city to get to some nice nature). We did a tricky and super muddy but very fun trek along the Huia Dam Reservoir.

After reaching the dam (where the water level was super low–google it to see a comparison of where it can be), we took a different route back that gave some great views of the banks of the reservoir and even a waterfall.

While we were originally expecting to get back to the car after dark, thanks to some short-distance hitchhiking (on the first car that went by! Points to Kiwis for hitchhiking friendliness) we actually had the time to drive all the way out to Piha on the western coast to catch the tail end of the sunset. Piha itself is supposed to have really pretty beaches (and good surfing), so I’ll have to get back out there sometime, but even viewing it from afar was nice.

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Volcanoes Volcanoes Volcanoes!

Did I mention that Auckland is built on a volcanic field? Sort of like the area I was in France, it’s full of what are called monogenetic volcanoes–very little volcanoes that are formed when they erupt just once and then never again. Frequently, after a lot of time has passed, they just look like big grassy hills. But I know what they really are. You can’t hide from me, cinder cones! I’ve got your number!

Today another one of my New Zealand friends who I met in the US took me around to look at some Auckland volcanoes. We started out by going to Mt. Eden, the highest natural point in Auckland. A tricky thing about NZ geology is that many locations have both a Maori and an English name, and it’s not consistent which language is the primary name. For example, Mt. Eden’s Maori name is Maungawhau, but it’s primarily known as Mt. Eden, whereas my volcano is called Taranaki rather than its English name Mt. Egmont.

Anyway, from the top of Mt. Eden you can see all of Auckland and out into the water that surrounds it and lots of the other little volcanoes, whose names I have yet to memorize (but there’s time…).

After that we drove along the coast to the east to the Mission Bay and St. Heliers areas, suburbany towns with really nice beaches and great views of the even more volcanoes.

Volcanoes Volcanoes Volcanoes! (Work Edition)

At work, I’ve been mostly busy reading lots and lots of articles and theses on Taranaki, similar volcanoes, and possible methods to use in my research. The short-term goal is to have some ideas about what I want to do and see when we go there later this week. There’s surprisingly little written specifically about the things I want to look at. While that makes it harder to learn about my subject, it’s also cool because it means that there’s a better chance that I’ll be breaking new ground with what I do. It also makes the fieldwork even more important. If I (and by extension, you) can’t learn what I want from papers, I’ll have to do it up close and personal!

Two Kiwis, a Swiss, a German, and an American Walk onto a Volcano…

If you’re going to a country to do lots of geological fieldwork, then there’s no better way to get started than to just get out there and pee in the woods as soon as possible, and that’s exactly what I did. When I arrived in New Zealand at 7:30am, my adviser and a couple of his postdocs picked me up from the airport, and within half an hour of my arrival in the country I was already on my way to a volcano. Along the way we picked up a PhD student, my future officemate. Since these are the people I’ll probably be spending a lot of time with over the next few years, it’s fortunate that they are all pretty awesome. A German, a Swiss, a Kiwi, and an American–good to have a group just as geographically diverse as I’m used to from the last year in Houghton. We stopped for lunch in Taupo, a medium size town (about 25,000 people–that’s biggish in NZ–everything is relative!) on a huge lake (Lake Taupo) that is in one of New Zealand’s main volcanic zones.

In fact, Lake Taupo itself is part of a huge volcanic caldera (calderas are super huge volcanoes so big that they don’t even really look like volcanoes–think Yellowstone) that formed around 26,000 years ago by the largest eruption the Earth has seen in the last 70,000 years or so. The last time it erupted is estimated to be about 2,000 years ago and was on the magnitude of 1815 the eruption of Tambora the eruption usually taught about as the largest eruption in recent times. The volcano is still technically dormant, not extinct, so I’ll keep my eyes peeled and let you guys know if you have anything to fear. From there we headed down to the mountains of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which contains a number of active volcanoes, including Ruapehu, the one we were planning to work on for our trip. While I won’t be doing any of my own work there, it’s still good to get a look at NZ geology. In this case, we were looking to map and identify different types of deposits from the volcanoes recent and past eruptions.

The first day was pretty laid back, just stopping the van at a few interesting places to dig around a bit, look at the different layers, and maybe collect some plastic baggies of rocks and ash to take home. It was the second day that provided the most interesting part of our trip. We hiked the main track out in around the northern side of Ruapehu (the tallest peak on the North Island at about 2,800 meters), running between it and Mt. Ngauruhoe, the youngest volcanic vent in the area. If you zoom in on google earth you can actually see the track. After a while, we cut in towards Ruapehu off the track and started climbing in and out of the valleys and river basins–a lot more direct than the path, but pretty strenuous stuff.

As we got further in, the weather got nicer, and the views got better. We stopped every time we saw good exposures of the particular layers of deposits we were looking for to do more mapping and sampling.

On a mostly unrelated note, there was this awesome fluffy white moss stuff all over the place in certain sections–in some places it was like the whole area was covered in a really comfy rug. It made for an interesting landscape, and later on, in harsher times, I would very strongly consider using it as a pillow.

I say harsher times, because though we traversed the tricky route quite quickly on the way out, we might have made too good time for our own good. We planned to meet up with the track much farther on and then take it all the way back. Only problem was, we misjudged our return trip by a bit. And by a bit, I mean by a couple hours. Oopsa. I mentioned the track was long and windy. It was the “easy” route back, but not exactly a stroll in the park. There were tons of hills and staircases and bends and bridges. The last hour plus was in the pitch dark–lucky I happened to throw my headlamp in my backpack and not my suitcase when I was packing! All in all it was a 30km day–pretty hard work, but I guess I’d better get used to it! There’s probably lots more of those in store for me. The third day was back to van-ology–driving to interesting places and taking short walks.

Just a little more sample collecting, and then it was a late drive back to Auckland for a team-bonding dinner at my adviser’s house.

Originally we had planned to go back for more fieldwork this week. Unfortunately, the weather there for the next few days is supposed to be exceptionally bad, so it will have to wait. Luckily, we’re already planning a trip to Taranaki a week or two from now so I can get some quality time with my volcano. In the meantime I’ll have to satisfy myself with copious amounts of reading about the volcanoes of New Zealand.