Fantastic Volcanoes and Where to Find Them, Part 1

I feel like I’ve been teasing many of you with promises of more cool volcano photos for a while now, but I have yet to follow through. I hate to make excuses, but HE DID IT!!! *quick cut to the weatherman* Unfortunately, I arrived in NZ right at the start of winter (remember, reverse seasons in the Southern Hemisphere), and it’s not really the nicest time for fieldwork. While it doesn’t snow too much on the North Island other than at high elevations, winter weather is super variable, with frequent rain and high winds near the volcanoes and the ability to go from fair to dangerous weather pretty quickly. As a result, we tend to err on the side of caution and cancelled a few field trips to both Taranaki and Ruapehu in the past month.

But all that all-talk-and-no-action ends now, with a blockbuster two-part series! Awesome volcanoes of New Zealand ahoy!

In our first installment, our hero returns to the scene of his first NZ fieldwork to carry lunch and crack jokes for his fellow researcher! But seriously, one cool thing about doing geologic fieldwork is that people are usually pretty open to bringing you along for the ride as long as you provide some good company and help carry stuff. My friend Manu had more research to do on her main field site, Ruapehu, so I tagged along to help out.

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Since the days are short in winter, it’s hard to get any real work done if you don’t leave ridiculously early (as you will see in Part 2), so we decided the better option was to drive down in the afternoon and hike into Tongariro National Park to the spot where we’d be spending the night so we could get an early start the next morning.

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After an hour or so of hiking, we got to Waiohohonu Hut. My expectations weren’t super high–I would’ve been satisfied with a little shelter with some bunks–but they were far surpassed by the fanciness of the hut. It was really new and modern, with solar powered lighting, a nice wood stove heating the central room, stations for cooking and washing, and mattress pads for sleeping on. We certainly weren’t complaining!

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We met some pretty cool people in the hut, too! Some fellow Aucklanders with serious climbing experience and a park ranger with a past career of writing about hot springs in the US and NZ who was really interested in talking to us about our research and sharing stores about NZ volcanoes.

Did I say it doesn’t really snow on the North Island? Well this place is the exception! It was quite cold when I woke up the next morning, and I was actually worried I’d underpacked (luckily things warmed up fine once we got moving). The plants were covered in a sparkly layer of frost, and there were these really weird cool stringy bladey ice structures that I’d really like to know the scientific explanation for.

We were back around Ruapehu to continue the same work Manu was doing on our last trip there. We were looking for a particular unit of tephra (a layer of deposited volcanic ash) in order to find out where it was erupted from. Based on where we find it (or don’t find it), we can rule out or in different locations as possibilities of being the source.

As I mentioned in a previous post, fieldwork for volcanic mapping isn’t particularly high tech stuff. You carry around a spade, a hammer, some plastic baggies, and when you find something interesting you dig a hole or scrape the surface clean and have a look. If there’s something interesting, you take some notes about what you’re seeing, maybe collect a small sample, and move on. I’m still learning what characteristics are important to note, where to look, how to distinguish between different units, etc., so hopefully it will get easier as I gain experience.

After quite a bit of climbing and scrambling over boulders and through snow, we reached a bit of a dead end. There were a couple possible routes to get from where we were to where we were going, but they didn’t seem safely passable given the conditions, so we decided we had to lose some time taking a much more roundabout route. It was a little disappointing, as it prevented us from reaching either of the Tama Lakes that we were hoping to examine.

Luckily, we were cheered in the late moments of the day by a couple of good outcrop sightings where we could look for our elusive tephra. In this case, we were looking for a what is called banded pumice, a particular volcanic rock (you learned about it in middle school, it’s the really light one that can float on water!) with a two-colored layering pattern. Even though we didn’t get quite as much done as we had hoped, the fact that we did and didn’t find it in certain places meant our efforts were not in vain.

After finishing up, we returned to the hut for some hot chocolate and tea and a tasty meal of hot canned soup, chocolate, and a little wine (don’t tell me volcanologists don’t know how to be classy while doing fieldwork!).

The next morning, we said goodbye to our ranger friend (and our volcano friends) and hiked back out to our van to head home.

Join us again in Part 2, where I’ll introduce you to my volcano, Doctor Señor Taranaki, Esq. (What, don’t you think in 130,000 years that he’d have had time to earn a few degrees?)

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.