Read­ing the rock

Taranaki Daily News - - Magazine -

''As best we can judge from ge­ol­ogy and his­toric ac­tiv­ity, vol­ca­noes or vents that are as cheek by jowl as Red Crater on Ton­gariro and Ngau­ruhoe ab­so­lutely don't talk to each other.''

Then there’s Taupo¯ , which is prone to enor­mous rages and dam­age, but also ca­pa­ble of great kind­ness. And that’s the chal­lenge for foren­sic vul­canol­ogy – while each vol­cano has its char­ac­ter­is­tics, ev­ery erup­tion is to an ex­tent unique. While the Oru­anui erup­tion was mas­sive, the small­est of Taupo¯ ’s 28 erup­tions since was small enough that Wil­son would have been happy to watch it with a gin and tonic in a de­serted lake­side bar.

It’s his job to read the his­tory in the rock and try to un­der­stand com­mon fac­tors link­ing vastly dif­fer­ent events. And then to work out what im­pact those erup­tions would have if they hap­pened to­day, to aid de­ci­sions about safe build­ing zones, or evac­u­a­tion plans.

The holy grail is to marry the gung ho and cun­ning coward schools of thought, to bet­ter un­der­stand how a vol­cano is be­hav­ing in real time. With im­prov­ing tech­nol­ogy, foren­sic vul­ca­nol­o­gists can mea­sure how rock trav­elled to the sur­face in past erup­tions, and how long it took, so if mon­i­tor­ing picks up sim­i­lar magma move­ment in the fu­ture they know to ex­pect an erup­tion.

‘‘The chal­lenge is are we go­ing to see a lit­tle dome built up in the lake, or a big ex­plo­sive erup­tion? We don’t yet know what we don’t know.’’

With earth­quakes shak­ing Mex­ico, an erup­tion forc­ing mass evac­u­a­tions in Van­u­atu and Bali’s Agung vol­cano threat­en­ing to blow, the Pa­cific Ring of Fire seems tetchy. How­ever, Wil­son says that’s no clear pre­dic­tor of erup­tions here.

‘‘As best we can judge from ge­ol­ogy and his­toric ac­tiv­ity, vol­ca­noes or vents that are as cheek by jowl as Red Crater on Ton­gariro and Ngau­ruhoe ab­so­lutely don’t talk to each other. They’re like two sniffy neigh­bours glar­ing at each other over the fence.’’

Wil­son doesn’t have a cell­phone – he pur­loined his wife Kate’s this week to be avail­able to me­dia. He likes be­ing away from things, he says.

He still gets out to ‘‘hit rock’’, just not as of­ten. His ‘‘age­ing car­cass’’ makes the 38km day hike to his Yel­low­stone re­search de­posit less re­al­is­tic, but he can still di­rect fit young stu­dents.

It’s an all-con­sum­ing pas­sion and pro­fes­sion, but he’s never re­luc­tant to go to work and he’s never lost the joy of dis­cov­ery that comes with find­ing a hid­den corner of a de­posit you’ve spent 30 weeks study­ing, and see­ing some­thing that blows your mind.

And now he’s lead­ing an $8.2m study into the risk of another su­per-erup­tion in New Zealand, he’s un­likely to find time to tidy that of­fice any time soon.

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