It’s been long as, let’s catch up!

Well I’ve been pretty slack with this blog thing lately… There’s no way I’ll do justice to most of the stuff that’s been going on, so how about we just do a quick, mostly photo-based run through of some cool NZ places I’ve been in the last several months?

Rangitoto: Auckland’s youngest volcano

It’s sitting out there in Auckland harbor…Auckland’s most recently erupted volcano (~600 years ago), looking pretty and green and just a bit intimidating. Could it erupt again? Not likely (as part of a volcanic field, it’s classified as monogenetic–that is, it’s one shot only by definition), but that’s actually a pretty intense academic debate that I’ll leave alone here. Lucky for me I just got to have a nice ferry ride over, a short climb to the top, and a walk through some cool lava tubes.

More Taranaki Fieldwork and the coldest night of my life

Did a few more fieldwork trips to Taranaki for a bit more sample collection back before winter began. Mostly little of note, but on my last trip of the season, I camped overnight on the way from Auckland to Wellington with the hope of collecting a few last samples. Let’s just say I slightly underestimated how cold it would get at night and ended up so cold that by 3am I couldn’t sleep anymore and had to sit in the car. Oops. Unbelievably clear and beautiful night sky, though, and I did get my samples, so not so terrible in the end!

Also messed around with some time lapses during the sunset. So you can see what it looks like for the sun to set in Taranaki on a clear day!

I continued down to Wellington afterwards to experiment on the samples I’d just collected–here’s what it looks like from my lab at the University of Victoria perched high up on the hill above the city centre.

A bit of Auckland regional geology

A few field trips, some uni-related, others just for fun to check out some cool regional parks with some cool rocks.

Tongariro Fieldwork

I never pass up a chance to help out a fellow PhD student with fieldwork, which meant I took a couple trips down to Tongariro National Park to help out Mia, one of the other PhD students in the department who is researching the last several thousand years of tephra deposits from Tongariro volcano. We did a lot of driving around–it’s important to learn what deposits from each of the volcano’s eruptions look like (many of them have distinctive characteristics) and then identify those deposits in as many locations as possible.

Here’s an example of what we do when we investigate an outcrop–mostly walk around pointing at stuff, discuss things, take notes (in superspeed!).


I’ve been lucky enough to have a few friends come visit me in NZ already. And when they do, of course I take them to see something geological! Recently my friend Katherine stopped by Auckland during her trip to NZ from the US. We took a trip out to the Coromandel Peninsula to see Cathedral Cove. It’s a pretty sweet collection of arches and sea stacks formed from millions of years-old ignimbrite deposits (volcanic deposits resulting from huge pumice-filled eruptions).

Vanuatu…just a peek!

I mentioned not passing up a chance to help with fieldwork…that goes double when I get offered a chance to travel to do it! My officemate, Ben, is living in Vanuatu for three months monitoring Yasur, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In September I got to go help him…and to see my first eruptions. That’s a YUUUGE moment for a volcanologist! I’ll try to do a whole post on that later, I certainly have enough photos!

This Is How We Do It

A quick follow up to yesterday’s post — I made a fun video of our fieldwork trip so you can see exactly what we’re up to, and set it to a jaunty tune. Enjoy!

I’m really enjoying trying to tell stories about science through film, and I hope I can do a lot more of it in the future. I’m actually currently taking a course the the organization called SciFund on how to make good science youtube videos, so hopefully there will be more where this came from!

Science, dammit!

Buckle up for some geology! Now that you’ve seen what it takes to get to the top of a 2518m high volcano, let’s see what happens when you do it a second time. Only with shitloads of stuff strapped to your back and actual things to accomplish once you get to the top.

As I mentioned, one of the best places to find recent material from Taranaki’s last eruptions is way up at the top. Looking at Taranaki’s most recent lava flows can help us in lots of ways. We can compare it to material we find lower on the volcano. We can look at fresher and more weathered material. We can look at different parts of the lava dome to see if the lava cooled at different rates in different places and try to learn what ways it affects the lava’s properties.

But the simplest thing we can try to do with those hot hot lava rocks (that are now cold) is try to figure out how old they are. If we decide that the lava dome at the top of Mt. Taranaki’s collapse was probably the last thing to happen there, then if we figure out how old those rocks are, we can probably tell when the volcano last erupted.

(The reason we don’t know this already is because the last eruption was before European settlement of the area. From this we know it must be older than at least the mid-1800s. Maori people were there at this time, for sure, but as far as I know there aren’t any datable written records or stories tied to an eruption.)

Our goal for this trip was to collect samples that I could try to date using paleomagnetic methods in the lab in Wellington. On my trips lower down you may remember me collecting rock samples that I would drill holes in in the lab later. But this time we decided to go full on and collect our cores in the field in order to be as accurate as possible.

This was a bigger job, though, so it required a bigger team. A both of my Auckland-based supervisors, Shane and Mike, and a couple fellow students from Auckland, Edgar and Jie, came with me, along with my friend Elisa, our Wellington-based paleomag expert.

For starters, the trip was longer than the first time. We’d be climbing two consecutive days, meaning we had to carry a whole bunch of food in addition to our gear (and possibly some lovely boxes of wine–we do our geology in style!). Oh, yeah…the gear. Hammer, chisel, chainsaw-sized drill and all its accessories, and more. Heck of a lot more than I had on my fun first climb.

We made our camp at the same awesome Tahurangi Lodge that I stayed at last time. It was definitely nice to have a little comfort at the end of the day.

From there, our first job was to hike to the top. Now, doing paleomag drilling is simple enough when your outcrops are by the roadside. Stop somewhere and fill up your water tanks, pull up on the side of the road, do your thing, go home. If you run out of water, just fill up again and get back to work.


In our case, however, we had to get all that same stuff to the top of the of the volcano to get to our sample sites, and there was nowhere to get more water once we were up there (we gave some thought to melting snow, but couldn’t come up with an efficient enough solution). That meant splitting up about 45 liters of water, a couple liters of fuel, and all the drill stuff between everyone for the trip up. It was probably the most difficult fieldwork I’ve ever done — steep enough as is, but even harder when weighed down by a super full pack.

But we did make it! Hooray! Once we were up there, we moseyed around to the western side of the summit to see the collapsed crater. That’s where the volcano’s most recent lava dome grew, then collapsed, leaving a giant horseshoe-shaped amphitheater behind. This was probably sometime in the 1800s, but we don’t yet know for sure.

In order to compare different parts of the dome and learn as much as we can about Taranaki’s most recent activity, we needed samples from lots of different parts of the dome, which meant climbing all around the collapse amphitheater and around the snow fields to pick out a few different sites to core.

Once we’d taken a good look, we picked some sample locations on different parts spread around the area and got to work drilling our cores. Drilling and orienting is a team effort. For the most efficient work, it takes two to drill–one to do the actual drilling and one to man the pump bottle to keep water running through the drill so it operates well. Then it takes another one or two to take accurate measurements and write careful on the cores and collect them to take home — that way the drillers can already move on to the next site. ***drilling note at end***

In order to learn more about the formation of the lava dome, we made sure to take samples from both the outside carapace of the dome that had cooled and remained in place as well as the fresh material that is newly exposed where the side of the dome collapsed. That way we can try to look for differences between the two types: Did one cool faster? Do they contain the same minerals? Are the mineral crystals different sizes? Did they record the same paleomagnetic field?

As you saw in the picture above, we usually drill about 8-12 small holes per site, and on the first day we were able to do five sites. Not bad for a day’s work! And we felt pretty good about having carried all that water since we used almost all of it. Imagine how upset we would have been if we’d worked so hard to get up there and then quit early because we ran out!

On the way down we were treated to some pretty awesome views or the surrounding area. The perfect circle of the edge of the park still impresses me. Combined with the shadow Taranaki casts in the evenings, it’s a pretty unusual sight.

Back at the lodge were were able to have some delicious soup packets, tea, dinner, and wine, and rest up for day two.

So did I complain about the first day being the hardest fieldwork I’d ever done? I was being a wuss. Day two was the hardest fieldwork I’ve ever done. Carrying all the same stuff up the volcano a second straight day was seriously hard work and at times frustrating (especially when constantly sliding backwards trying to climb the scree field) — early on I was genuinely concerned I might not make it! But after some tough times in the early going, we actually all made it to the top faster than we did on the first day.

The weather wasn’t nearly as good the second day, it was quite a bit chillier, and visibility was pretty low. Luckily my supervisor had a good idea where we were going. We did another four sites — some were more parts of the lava dome, but we also sampled The Turtle, an interesting feature a little ways down from the top that is very visible when looking at Mt. Taranaki from the west. Despite some tough conditions and a bit of slipping and sliding, we stayed focused, worked hard, and got everything we needed so that all our sarcastic comments about having to come up a third straight day could just remain jokes.

After staying another night in the lodge, we were able to head home with all the samples we needed to do a good investigation, and also comfortable in the knowledge that if we ever need to come back and get more samples, we’ll know exactly what to do. I’ve already gotten my teeth into testing the samples from this trip in the paleomagnetism lab down in Wellington, and though we don’t have any conclusive results yet, we’re well on our way to learning a lot more about the lonely volcano.

***Note on drilling: Mt. Taranaki is a beautiful and culturally important mountain. As such, we make our best effort to be as non-disruptive and non-destructive as possible when doing fieldwork. But sometimes the only way to do the science is to take the samples, as in this case. Before we even planned the drilling, we consulted with the NZ Department of Conservation and local iwi to get all proper permissions for the work and to make sure we did it in a way where all parties involved could be happy. When actually on the mountain, we always made an effort to drill our cores in places far off the beaten path where they won’t bother anyone, and often in areas where weathering and further collapse will likely remove them altogether over time.***

Who wants to climb a volcano?

I promised some more geology lessons way back when and I haven’t followed through very well on that, but now I’ll try to make good on that promise. Or at least, I’ll lay the groundwork for the some science.

While I’ve mentioned before I’m interested in all the deposits on the northwestern side of Mt. Taranaki because they are the most recent, the other best place to find really recent stuff is by going straight to the source. What’s younger than the lava right at the top of the volcano?

Before we did any serious sample collecting, I decided to take a recon/fun trip to the top to see what it was like. That way when I planned the serious fieldwork, I would know what I was getting us into. Where do we want to sample? How hard is it to get there? How much can we do in a day? Etc.

My plans for this coincided perfectly with my geo-friend  and super-adventurer Aurelia’s arrival in NZ back in February, so we headed down there to check things out. After driving up to the visitor’s centre, we hiked about 1.5 hours in to the Tahurangi Lodge, an awesome mountain house owned by the Taranaki Alpine Club (that generously let me join), where we stayed for the first night. This gave us a nice head start for the real climb.

The next morning we got an early start and headed up to the top. It was quite the climb! Not technically difficult in any sense, anyone in good enough shape could do it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pretty hard work! From the lodge, there’s three main sections to go through to get to the top. The first third is just dirt tracks and steep, long staircases. The second third is probably the hardest–a huge field of loose scree that shifts under you every time you take a step, meaning progress is pretty slow and frustrating. The final third is a scramble over a series of rocky, jagged lava flows called “the Lizard”.

Finally, after these trials, you reach the crater. And despite it being summer, it was full of snow! The crater contains Taranaki’s current summit lava dome, which was created during its most recent eruptions and rises to the volcano’s highest point of 2518m. It’s also collapsed to the northwest, as we’ll talk about later.

After exploring the crater for a while and taking note of good sampling sites (and even taking a short nap while we waited for some clouds to blow through), we were almost ready to head back down. We wanted to go up to the very top, but it was so foggy that it didn’t seem worth it. Luckily we decided to go for it anyway, because just as we reached the summit everything cleared up and we got a great view.

The way back down was quite a bit faster (from the lodge, it was a bit under 3 hours to the top but less than 2 hours to cover the same distance on the way down). As much trouble as scree fields are to climb, going down they’re super fun. If you’re willing to end up on your butt a few times, you can kind of jump from foot to foot and ski down as it shifts under your feet. Whee! After stopping for a short break at the lodge, we hiked out the rest of the way. Surprisingly, the final hour or so, which should’ve been the easiest part, was actually frustratingly hard because my stupid wobbly toddler legs wouldn’t go where I wanted them to and we couldn’t walk properly. Nonetheless, we made it! The next day was the sorest I’ve probably every been (but, you know, in a good way). And this was just the test run for the real thing!

Now that I’d been there and knew what things were like at the top of Taranaki, I was ready to plan our big sampling expedition! See, now you’re ready for the science next time.

Oh yeah, as a bonus, check this out! While we were up there we shot an (only slightly embarrassing) educational video for my mom’s 3rd grade class that my brother edited into an awesome geology lesson. I think it turned out pretty well!

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!

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!

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!).

Fantastic Volcanoes and Where to Find Them, Part 2

I hope you like maps.

The week after my return to Ruapehu was an exciting milestone in my PhD. It was the first time going to see the volcano that I’ll be doing the vast majority of my work on. We’d had to cancel trips already, but a small window of good weather had opened up at the end of the first week of June, and we decided to take advantage.

As I mentioned previously, the days are short right now so if you don’t start early it’s hard to get much done while it’s still light enough to see the outcrops you’re looking for. And with the Taranaki region a 4-5 hour drive from Auckland (about halfway between Auckland and the bottom of the North Island), it would be hard to get there and get field work done on the same day. We remedied this by leaving at 4am (uffa!), meaning we still had a full day to check stuff out after we arrived.

Since we were in a hurry to get down to the volcano (and it was dark for a lot of the trip), I didn’t get to take any pictures of the countryside, but it’s really pretty, and I’ll go back sometime just to look around at a more relaxed pace. Once we got close, sort of as you come around the turn onto the Taranaki Peninsula, we could see Mt. Taranaki off in the distance across the water. I was told this is pretty lucky–many people don’t get any good views of the mountain on their first trip there, especially this time of year. It was quite a nice view. I didn’t take a picture. Then we went closer so I could formally introduce myself (How do you formally meet a volcano? Maybe just find a cool looking outcrop and high-five it? I think I will do that next time I meet one.).

Now, according to Maori legend Taranaki was a great being that was brave enough to fight Tongariro (one of the NZ’s other major volcanoes) over the island’s one female volcano, Pihanga, in a great battle. When the battle ended, Pihanga chose Tongariro, so Taranaki moved far away to where it is today (which explains why it off by itself far from the North Island’s other volcanoes). This story is important because it will help you understand just how terrifyingly intimidating our group was when I tell you that as soon as we got closer, Taranaki hid in a cloud and didn’t come out for pretty much the entire rest of the trip.

Since we’re on a map binge, here’s one more just to get you acquainted with the landscape surrounding Mt. Taranaki.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 9.42.32 PM

Pretty cool, innit? Mt. Taranaki is located in the center of Egmont National Park (Mt. Egmont is the volcano’s other name), which forms a near-perfect circle of forest surrounding the volcano. The little bit of dark green extending to the northwest is the lineament on which Mt. Taranaki and all the older, extinct volcanoes that were active before Mt. Taranaki formed lie. The forest stops abruptly at the park’s edge, and lots of farmland begins, full of endless green hills and mounds. Due to weather and time constraints, we decided to leave the higher elevation areas of the park for another time. Instead, we took a tour counterclockwise around the more distal parts of the peninsula (starting at New Plymouth), stopping to see interesting things and planning future trips.

Are you ready for some FOOTBAAAALL science?

We started by looking at the oldest known deposit from Mt. Taranaki slightly northeast of New Plymouth, called the Motunui deposit, which is likely over 130,000 years old. It’s what is called a debris avalanche deposit, basically it’s a massive amount of boulders and sand and everything in between that came crashing down the mountain when part of the volcano collapsed. Also, it didn’t contain very much water, it wasn’t a mudslide (remember that, because it’s important).

We made a stop at another beach farther west to look at the Okawa unit, a slightly younger debris avalanche.

After a quick stop in New Plymouth, the region’s (far and away) largest city (~70,000 people) we moved on to the northwestern-most part of the peninsula to see the Sugarloaf Islands. They’re all the remains of the region’s very first volcanic structures from over a million and a half years ago.

Our next point of interest was the Stony River (also called the Hangatahua River), one of the largest rivers running from Mt. Taranaki to the coast where I will be doing much of my mapping and sampling. Unlike volcanic ash and other explosive deposits which are usually very light and can go anywhere (affected by factors like wind direction), lahars (volcanic mudslides) which I study are mostly driven by gravity. This means that they tend to always flow downhill into and through the lowest areas. That’s why riverbeds are generally the best place to study lahar deposits. Some of the hiking in this area required a lot of bushbashing, a down-under term for forcing your way through dense vegetation instead of taking a trail. There’s quite a lot of forest in Taranaki, so I plan on doing a lot of this during my research.

Then…another trip to the beach to check out another huge debris avalanche deposit. The tide was coming in, so we had to move fast!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day we continued our tour, driving all the way around the peninsula along the coast from New Plymouth and back around. We stopped at a bunch more potential research sites (which I’m sure I’ll cover in future posts) and got to check out more of the landscape.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After all that science, I think you deserve a photo of a volcano.

When we had driven around most of the volcano, we decided to drive up into the national park. Unfortunately, it was still really foggy at this point, so we really didn’t see anything. It was a bit disappointing, and we were about ready to drive home at this point. It was a bummer to not have gotten a close-up view of Mt. Taranaki, when suddenly, he mustered up the courage to show himself!

Good to meet you, sir. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other for the next few years, so I hope we can be friends!

And then we were on our way back. We’ve already got some good plans for the next trip, so it’s just a matter of finding some good weather that lines up with people’s schedules. Hopefully that happens soon!