Words: Nikki Macdonald Photo: Robert Kitchin
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’.’’