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

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!

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Back in a Geoff

Important note: Title must be pronounced in a New Zealand accent.

So, the big day has arrived. Today I’m going to Auckland.

Or, more accurately, in two days I’m going to New Zealand. Due to the 20+ hours of travel time (6 hours to LA and 13 hours to NZ with a short layover) and the +17 hour time difference, I leave Monday evening and don’t arrive until Wednesday morning. I like the “time travel” aspect of the trip–as I fly west, it gets earlier and earlier until suddenly…WHOOSH! A day vanishes and it’s 24 hours later. (WHOOSH is the sound of an airplane crossing the International Date Line.)

When I arrive at 7:15 am on Wednesday, I will go take a nap straightaway. And by nap, I mean go to a volcano. And by that I mean my adviser and a couple of his students are picking me up from the airport and driving straight to Mt. Ruapehu, an active volcano in Tongariro National Park. (Maybe I can nap on the way to the volcano.)

Tongariro National Park

Mt. Ruapehu

I don’t know what exactly we’re doing, but I can’t think of a much better way to start than diving in headfirst. And since it’s not my fieldwork or my volcano, it should be a fairly low stress (except for the possible sleep deprivation thing) way to get acquainted with the nature and geology of my new home. And also quickly get some nice photos so I don’t have to steal stuff off the internet (without claiming credit, of course) just to show you what the places I talk about are like.

After a couple days of that, I will actually get to Auckland, where I will get to do all the fun stuff one does in a new place, like finding a place to live, getting a bank account, registering at the university, etc. That part should be a little more stressful than sleepwalking around on a volcano. Still, it should be easier than when I did all the same things in Italy without speaking any Italian.

For now, I’ll leave you with a pretty cool map I found that shows the relative size of the US compared with NZ and Australia. NZ isn’t very big, but it is actually a lot bigger and farther from Australia than I expected. But that just means more country to explore!

It’s probably going to be a while before I see a lot of you again, but send me an email or message every now and then–I don’t want us to lose touch just because I’m far away! And NZ is a pretty sweet vacation spot. *hint hint*

See you guys on the other side of the world!