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NASA flying radar to image volcanoes and active faults - 09/08/2000

White Island and active geological faults in central North Island will come under scrutiny from highly accurate remote sensing instruments on board a NASA aircraft which is scheduled to visit New Zealand later this week.

The three-dimensional topographic measurements obtained by a radar on the modified DC8 will help geologists understand the origin and behaviour of faults in central North Island.


And it is hoped that radar and infra-red images of White Island will add to the understanding of the island’s volcanic activity. But clarity of the images could be affected if there is a large amount of ash in the atmosphere.


On the mainland, geologists from the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited (GNS) have selected rectangular areas northeast of Taupo and southwest of Mt Ruapehu for the NASA aircraft to image.


The area northeast of Taupo is 10km wide by 40km long, and to the south of Ruapehu the area is 20km wide by 60km long.


Using terrestrial imaging and surveying techniques, scientists have had difficulty building up an accurate picture of how repeated earthquakes have helped to shape the landscape of the central North Island.


" One hour of flying can collect the volume of information that would take many weeks of ground-based survey work to collect," GNS geologist Andy Nicol said.


" Accuracy of the NASA instruments is another benefit. It would be difficult and expensive to collect ground-based data that was accurate to one metre vertical over a large area."


Geologists are aiming to find out how repeated earthquakes over many thousands of years have combined as a major landscaping force.


" Some areas of central North Island have been subjected to hundreds of earthquakes during the past 300,000 years," Dr Nicol said.


South of Ruapehu, the Taupo Volcanic Zone – an area of intense volcanism and geothermal activity - appears to end abruptly and geologists are keen to find out why. It is hoped that images from NASA’s "flying laboratory" will help researchers studying this area.


The DC8 can image the earth’s surface through cloud and at night. To capture the images the aircraft flies at an altitude of 7km and each sweep covers a strip10km wide. The radar instrument collects elevation measurements every 10m across the landscape.


New Zealand and American scientists will share the data collected during the six-day project.


The "flying laboratory" will image areas in both North and South islands between August 11 and 17. Images of White Island and the areas north and south of Taupo are scheduled to be collected on August 15.


Images of White Island collected by the aircraft during its last visit, in 1996, will serve as a benchmark for scientists studying the volcano.


The aircraft will also be imaging plantation and native forests in both islands to help measure the condition of forests and determine their ability to soak up greenhouse gases. Radar is also the best way of finding out the volume of timber in hard-to-access areas.


The project will also help scientists assess the usefulness of various radar technologies. This will help New Zealand make sound investment choices in "super-satellite" technology, which will become available in a few years.


The project, known as Pacrim-2, has been organised by NASA and governments and agencies throughout the Pacific Rim. Landcare Research is the principal New Zealand agency. The modified DC8 will be based at Christchurch International Airport while in New Zealand.


For more information contact:


Andy Nicol, Geologist, GNS
Nicki Stevens, Geophysicist, GNS