Words: Nikki Mac­don­ald Photo: Robert Kitchin

Taranaki Daily News - - Magazine -

Where most driv­ers see un­sightly road­works, Colin Wil­son sees a story. Pass a bearded bloke star­ing at a fresh road-cut in the Taupo¯ re­gion and chances are it will be Wil­son, read­ing the rock.

Like any an­cient in­scrip­tion, you have to learn to de­ci­pher its se­crets. But once you’ve mas­tered the code, the rock that was once molten magma in the belly of a vol­cano can re­veal much about the erup­tion that forced it to the sur­face.

‘‘If you know what to look for, and you start to un­der­stand the lan­guage, they start to tell you all these de­tailed sto­ries,’’ the veteran vul­ca­nol­o­gist says.

In Wil­son’s sham­bolic Vic­to­ria Univer­sity of­fice – be­hind the tape mea­sures, hard hat and choco­late ba­nana cake, next to the blue fish bins la­belled ‘‘Yel­low­stone’’ – is a soc­cer ball-sized lump of rock.

There’s a whole PhD in this, Wil­son ex­plains. The black and tawny lay­ers are dif­fer­ent types of magma – that one’s come up from about 80km deep. The com­po­si­tion of the shiny white feldspar crys­tals and tiny black flecks of iron ox­ides can re­veal the tem­per­a­ture at which they were cre­ated. This, says Wil­son, is CSI Taupo¯ .

There are two schools of vul­ca­nol­o­gist: the gung-ho types who run to­ward rum­bling vol­canos, mak­ing ob­ser­va­tions through ash clouds and fire foun­tains and oc­ca­sion­ally get­ting killed. And the foren­sic vul­ca­nol­o­gists, who an­a­lyse magma thrown up some­times mil­lions of years ago, to try to un­der­stand the pat­terns of past erup­tions and how they might pre­dict fu­ture be­hav­iour.

‘‘It’s like some­one ob­serv­ing a fight and rush­ing in to help, and get­ting knifed or shot for their pains. And then there’s the cold-blooded types that wait till the ac­tion’s fin­ished.’’

Wil­son is, he says, one of the ‘‘cun­ning cow­ards’’. Of­ten by ne­ces­sity – the su­pere­rup­tions he spe­cialises in are so mon­strous, if you’re close enough to see the vent and lava plume, you will die. The Oru­anui erup­tion that cre­ated the col­lapsed crater be­neath Lake Taupo¯ 27,000 years ago was so ex­plo­sive it spewed pumice dust and ash as far away as the Chatham Is­lands and Antarc­tica.

While Wil­son has stud­ied vol­ca­noes around the world, in­clud­ing in Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park, Alaska, on San­torini and the Ker­madecs, Taupo¯ is his spe­cialty. He’s a de­tails guy – know­ing a lot about one thing suits his tem­per­a­ment. He played chess for a while, but doesn’t en­joy los­ing. The beauty of re­search, he says, is that the only limit is your own brain.

Abot­tle of English sta­ple worces­ter­shire sauce on Wil­son’s desk pro­vides a clue to his own ori­gins. Brought up near Ox­ford, he came to vul­canol­ogy by chance. Just be­fore his Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don en­trance in­ter­view, an Ice­landic vol­cano blew right next to a ma­jor fish­ing port. The photos were spec­tac­u­lar. So when the in­ter­view­ers asked about his in­ter­ests, he said vol­ca­noes.

They paired him with world-renowned vul­ca­nol­o­gist Ge­orge Walker, who in 1978 em­i­grated to New Zealand on a Cook Re­search Fel­low­ship. Wil­son fol­lowed, and even­tu­ally stayed, work­ing for GNS, Auck­land Univer­sity and – since 2009 – Vic­to­ria Univer­sity. He was this week awarded the Royal So­ci­ety’s Rutherford Medal for re­search.

At 61, Wil­son can recog­nise 50-100 vol­ca­noes from a photo. Each has its own per­son­al­ity, from its shape and tem­per­a­ment to the kinds of rock it throws up.

Peo­ple of­ten think of vol­ca­noes as be­ing like a rugby ball – be­ing pumped up and pumped up un­til they inevitably burst. It’s a bad anal­ogy, Wil­son says. The Oru­anui erup­tion was a stop-start af­fair. Vol­canos can be very finely tuned – like see­ing Gerry Brown­lee in a tutu do­ing bal­let, he says. (He likes to con­jure im­agery he knows his stu­dents will re­mem­ber.)

There are the Win­ston Peters char­ac­ters of the vol­cano world, such as Pa­pua New Guinea’s Rabaul, Wil­son says.

‘‘It looked like drums, trum­pets and an erup­tion on the way in 1982/83, then it went back to sleep. Then it erupted with very lit­tle warn­ing in 1994. This is what per­son­al­i­ties are like – Win­ston could say I’m go­ing to an­nounce it tonight, at 6 o’clock, then he sud­denly says ‘No, I haven’t made my mind up yet, I’ll let you know to­mor­row’.’’

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