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Studies reveal Auckland Volcanic Field’s past: it’s temperamental and unpredictable - 18/07/2017

Two new studies published this month reveal that Auckland’s volcanic past was temperamental, with at one stage several large eruptions happening within 4,000 years, contrasted with thousands of years or more of silence.

The studies have been published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research and in the Bulletin of Volcanology by a team of researchers from the DEVORA (Determining Volcanic Risk in Auckland) research programme.

They have determined that the Auckland Volcanic Field has a complex and episodic eruption history. The oldest eruption (Pupuke) dates back to approximately 200,000 years ago and the youngest (Rangitoto) only 500 years ago.

Interestingly, at least half of all the eruptions occurred in only the last 60,000 years – which is a relatively short time frame and indicates an increase in the rate of eruptions overall.

Dr Graham Leonard, Senior Scientist at GNS Science who led the research team, says  researchers used new data to decode Auckland’s volcanic past and understand what sort of volcanic events have occurred and when they happened.

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However, it’s important to note that the Auckland Volcanic Field is temperamental and we can’t use this study to predict a simple likelihood of a future eruption. What our research has revealed is that the past is complex, so we must wait to see what it will do next.

Dr Graham Leonard

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“What we now know about the Auckland Volcanic Field, based on this new research, is that some eruptions flare-up over what is, geologically speaking, a short period of time. For example, there can be 6-10 volcanoes erupting within a 4000-year timeframe.

“On the other hand, the volcanic field has also gone quiet for up to 10,000 years in the last 60,000 years, which is quite a long gap. This new research is exciting because it has allowed us to further define when eruptions have occurred which has helped us flesh out an eruption timeline.”

Researchers used argon-argon age dating in collaboration with the US Geological Survey to increase the number of reliably, directly dated volcanic centres from 12 to 35, out of a total of 53 in the Auckland Volcanic Field.

A further 13 volcanic centres were also put in their likely place on the timeline by using high-precision chemistry by volcanic geochemist Jenni Hopkins of Victoria University of Wellington. Dr Hopkins, who completed the work for her PhD, says “We now have an idea of the order and timing of almost all of Auckland’s eruptions, which is an unusual success compared to the state of knowledge on other volcanic fields around the world.’’

“Using both of these new techniques we were able to determine that some eruptions in the Auckland Volcanic Field may be interlinked and that the field as a whole, can be either ‘all on’ or very quiet, sometimes for several millennia,” says Dr Leonard.

“However, it’s important to note that the Auckland Volcanic Field is temperamental and we can’t use this study to predict a simple likelihood of a future eruption. What our research has revealed is that the past is complex, so we must wait to see what it will do next.”

GNS Science runs the GeoNet instrument network in Auckland which monitors the volcanoes and provides updates on activity to stakeholders. Auckland Council, Civil Defence, and the DEVORA team are investigating new techniques to improve our monitoring and warning systems, and on improving the resilience of the city to allow it to continue to operate safely and minimise disruption in the event of an eruption.

Craig Glover, Head of Strategy and Planning at Auckland Civil Defence, says that Auckland Civil Defence works with the DEVORA team and other experts to plan the city’s response to a volcanic event.

“If this research teaches us anything it’s that Auckland’s volcanic field is unpredictable.  

We all need to be prepared and while it might seem daunting, planning for a volcanic eruption is no different to planning for any other disaster – have a talk with your loved ones and make a plan”.  

The research team included scientists from GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington and The University of Auckland. 

This is a joint media release from GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington, The University of Auckland and Auckland Civil Defence and Emergency Management for the DEVORA (Determining Volcanic Risk in Auckland) research programme.

Volcanic map of Auckland