Uncovering Taupō’s seismic secrets

Despite their potential for large, dangerous eruptions, much remains to be discovered about the type of volcanoes known as caldera volcanoes. A Victoria University of Wellington, Massey University, and GNS Science research collaboration is aiming to help change that.

Ellie Mestel, Professor Martha Savage, Dr Simon Barker, and Dr Finn Illsley-Kemp with Tauhara volcano in the background.
Ellie Mestel, Professor Martha Savage, Dr Simon Barker, and Dr Finn Illsley-Kemp with Tauhara volcano in the background.

“Past research in New Zealand has often focused on volcanoes like Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu, because they have erupted in living memory and pose a big risk to people with their proximity to ski fields, roads, and popular walking tracks,” says Dr Finnigan Illsley-Kemp from the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences. “Caldera volcanoes are more complex and work on longer timescales, so they are harder to understand, but this is a gap in our knowledge that needs filling.”

This expedition is part of the ECLIPSE project, a cross-disciplinary project funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment aiming to understand more about the caldera volcano systems between Lake Taupō and Rotorua. ECLIPSE researchers are studying the science behind past eruptions, the present state of these volcanoes, the causes of non-eruptive volcanic unrest, and the oral histories of iwi who live near these volcanoes which give insight into past volcanic and seismic activity.

Dr Illsley-Kemp and his colleagues PhD student Eleanor Mestel, Dr Simon Barker, Bubs Smith, Professor Martha Savage and Professor Colin Wilson are working to understand the present state of the Lake Taupō volcano. Throughout October they have been placing seismometers into the ground which will monitor seismic, or earthquake, activity in and around the lake.

“Earthquakes occur when there is volcanic unrest, so by tracking seismic activity we can track the underground volcanic activity as well,” Dr Illsley-Kemp says. “We can also use the data to image the volcano’s roots under the lake to find out how much magma, or molten rock, is there and where it is located. We can use this information to help forecast when the volcano might erupt in the future.”

The seismometers will sit in the ground for two years, with the research team heading up there every three months to download the data for analysis.

Dr Illsley-Kemp and the research team have worked with Ngāti Tūwharetoa to find the best sites for the seismometers around the lake.

“We identified the best possible sites from a scientific perspective, and then we worked with representatives from Ngāti Tūwharetoa to make sure we weren’t placing scientific equipment near wāhi tapu sites, in and around the lake,” Dr Illsley-Kemp says. “We’re also working with the iwi to inform local people about the work we’re doing and involve them in what we are doing around their lake.”

Dr Illsley-Kemp and his team will visit local schools and share the project with them, as well as taking school children out into the field during fieldwork. Researchers from the ECLIPSE project were also involved in an exhibit at Te Papa to educate visitors on caldera volcanoes and will also be heavily involved in an international volcanology conference being held in New Zealand for the first time in 2021.

The data from the ECLIPSE project will ultimately be used to help prepare New Zealand for seismic and volcanic events.

“We are working closely with Geonet and Civil Defence, especially with the groups that would actually make decisions in an unrest event,” Dr Illsley-Kemp says. “A big part of this project is putting in place a framework to get our scientific advice to the people that can use it, as well as make sure the public is informed on what is happening and what to do in an emergency.”