Here’s Why An Enormous Eruption In New Zealand Could Be Even More Catastrophic Than First Feared

Situated in the western part of North Island in New Zealand, the imposing Mount Taranaki looms over the surrounding countryside. Taranaki is an active volcano, although the last instance of activity occurred back in the mid-19th century. The chances of an eruption in the near future are thought to be quite high, though. And the implications could prove to be catastrophic.

Volcanoes are naturally occurring geographical formations that are caused by fractures in the crust of the Earth. Such fissures are brought about by certain processes occurring beneath the surface of the planet. Specifically, they often relate to the amount of pressure and heat at work within the Earth.

This process has a lot to do with the large rock formations, known as tectonic plates, that make up the surface of the Earth. To help visualize this, we might think of tectonic plates as individual segments of a jigsaw puzzle. However, they’re constantly in motion – crashing into, pulling away from or brushing past one another.

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The movement of tectonic plates is a result of liquid rock swirling around beneath them – which causes the plates to shift by an inch or two, annually. But while such small figures might sound insignificant, the movement of the tectonic plates actually has considerable implications for life on Earth.

You see, there are three primary kinds of borders between tectonic plates. And each of them is responsible for a variety of specific features that appear on Earth. The first one occurs when two plates slide past one another and is known as a transform boundary.

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At transform boundaries, tectonic plates sometimes rub together to bring about an earthquake. Most boundaries of this kind, however, are present in the Earth’s oceans. And as a result, these earthquakes don’t necessarily cause much damage to humankind. But when the quakes take place on land, the ensuing damage can prove to be significant.

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Elsewhere, when plates crash into one another, the crust of the Earth can be shaped into mountains. This process occurs at what are referred to as convergent boundaries. These sorts of borders are responsible for notable land features, including the tallest mountain range on the planet: the Himalayas.

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Divergent boundaries, on the other hand, occur when plates move and pull apart from each other. This action causes magma from beneath the surface of the planet to surge up via a feature called a vent. And once the magma has escaped this vent, it can then solidify.

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During the course of a considerable period of time, this hardened magma heaps up on itself and forges a certain kind of landform. These jut out from the Earth and are, of course, known as volcanoes. And the processes involved in the creation of volcanoes have come to define much of the surface of our world.

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The term “volcano” can, in fact, be traced to an Italian island called Vulcano – which itself owes its name to a Roman deity. Indeed, for the ancient Romans, Vulcan was the god of fire. And each year, the god was worshipped at a special celebration in which people lit bonfires and tossed living creatures into them.

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So, the term “volcano” has been around for centuries. But while these fiery features are predominantly thought of as mountains that spit out red-hot lava from an opening on their peaks, there are, in fact, many different kinds of volcano. Indeed, these vents come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can appear deep in the ocean as well as above ground.

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Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, then, is a specific sort of landform known as a stratovolcano. Sometimes referred to as composite volcanoes, stratovolcanoes are formed by multiple tiers of material and are typically quite steep. They’re a relatively common sort of volcano, too – and there are some famous examples of them.

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Perhaps the most well-known stratovolcano is Mount Vesuvius – located in what is today the Campania region of Italy. Vesuvius is famous nowadays because of a major volcanic event in 79 A.D. that devastated a number of cities including Oplontis, Stabiae, Herculaneum and, of course, Pompeii.

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The eruption of Vesuvius is in fact said to be among the most catastrophic ever seen on the European continent. Yes, it’s thought to have discharged volcanic material some 20 miles into the air at tremendous speeds. In fact, it’s been estimated that the thermal energy expelled was equivalent to 100,000 of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic blasts.

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The most famous of the cities destroyed by Vesuvius’ eruption were Pompeii and Herculaneum. And the damage was catastrophic. Indeed, it is thought that these two settlements together housed as many as 20,000 people. But while more than 1,500 examples of human remains have been discovered in these cities, the total number of fatalities remains unclear.

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Pompeii is famous today because it has been remarkably well-preserved as a result of being covered in ash emitted by the volcano. Indeed, the ruined city now offers a remarkable snapshot of what life in the Roman Empire was once like. Everyday objects, homes, artworks and even human beings were solidified in place by the catastrophe – and they tell a story of the city’s final moments.

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Moreover, Pompeii also serves as a warning to present-day cities standing beneath the shadow of a volcano. Vesuvius itself is in fact still thought of today with a degree of trepidation, given the three million people who reside within its vicinity. You see, it’s known that the volcano remains active.

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And we might forgive those who live near New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki for being a little anxious as well. After all, Taranaki is also considered to be an active volcano. However, it’s presently thought to be quiescent – or in a state of inactivity – and hasn’t exhibited signs of life since the mid-19th century.

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Mount Taranaki takes its name from the native Maori people of New Zealand. You see, in the Maori language, the term tara relates to the top of a mountain. Meanwhile, naki is said to derive from ngaki, which translates as “shining.” The term, then, is thought to be an allusion to the snow that appears on the mountain’s summit.

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What’s more, Maori legend states that Taranaki was formerly positioned in a different location to the one that it occupies today. Apparently, the mountain was once in the company of the other volcanoes of New Zealand at the center of North Island. But following a skirmish, Taranaki was beaten, injured and consequently driven away.

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In the wake of this defeat, then, Taranaki is said to have made for the west of the island. And on this journey, many of North Island’s other landforms were apparently created as Taranaki passed through. For instance, the Whanganui River’s canyons and a swamp known as Te Ngaere are said to owe their creation to Taranaki’s travels.

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Taranaki’s path was eventually obstructed by the looming presence of another mountain range, however. And when the sun began to rise, Taranaki was frozen in place and so remains there to this day. It’s stated, too, that when clouds form around the mountain, this represents Taranaki pining for a past love.

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The mountain was known by its Maori name until January 1770, when it was discovered by the British explorer Captain James Cook. Today, Cook is perhaps best known for leading the first expedition from Europe to the eastern shores of Australia. And he was also the first person ever known to have sailed around New Zealand.

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Cook’s notes on the mountain are recorded in The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery. Upon discovering the volcano, in fact, he wrote that it was “of a prodigious height and its top cover’d with everlasting snow.” The nearby land was level, Cook remarked, “which afforded a very good aspect, being clothed with wood and verdure.”

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Cook was clearly quite taken with the mountain, then, and he designated it Mount Egmont in honor of John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont. Perceval had once backed the notion of sending explorers to search for the hypothetical continent of Terra Australis. And this support contributed towards Cook’s initial excursion to the Pacific Ocean – where he first came across eastern Australia.

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As a result, for centuries after Cook’s discovery of the volcano, it was officially referred to as Mount Egmont. But on May 29, 1986, the Maori name Mount Taranaki was given equal status. The word Egmont is still used in relation to the park around the volcano and for its peak, however.

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The volcano itself has been relatively quiet since Cook’s discovery. In fact, the last time that any significant volcanic activity occurred at Taranaki is thought to have been sometime around 1650. Back then, a considerable eruption reportedly took place on the mountain. And in the following centuries, smaller incidents have taken place. But large-scale events are not thought to be a thing of the past.

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That’s right: experts studying the mountain and its volcanic activities have come up with figures to suggest how often it erupts. And the numbers might well make for some disconcerting reading for those living nearby. Apparently, a small eruption transpires every 90 or so years – and a big one comes twice a millennium.

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Given that the last significant eruption is thought to have taken place in the middle of the 17th century, though, another large one shouldn’t come for a while yet. But conversely, a small eruption within the foreseeable future is a distinct possibility. In fact, there are some who suggest that there is a 50 percent likelihood of an eruption within the next half-century.

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And the consequences of such a flare-up from Mount Taranaki could prove devastating to those living within its vicinity. Indeed, an eruption, or another incident such as an earthquake, could lead to significant destruction in the surrounding region due to lahars – mudflows consisting of volcanic material known as pyroclastics.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, a discharge of scorching-hot pyroclastic material would devastate the things that lay in its path. Until recently, however, experts were under the impression that pyroclastic flows could only travel for around nine miles at most. But new research has suggested that these distances might be a significant underestimate.

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That’s right: according to experts from the University of Auckland, the reach of these scorching flows has been revised to somewhere around 15 miles. And this puts a significantly greater number of people at risk in the event of an eruption. Indeed, it’s thought that in Taranaki’s case, something like 40,000 people reside in this region around the volcano.

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This new research was led by a PhD student from the University of Auckland named Geoff Lerner. And according to Lerner himself, the findings call for a drastic revision of thinking in relation to how to deal with an eruption. Yes, any existing plans to deal with an emergency situation now appear inadequate.

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“During most eruptions like Mount Taranaki, it’s generally thought that the main hazard is 5 to 15km [3 to 9 miles] from the volcano,” Lerner explained to Newshub in April 2019. “[But] if you extend it to 25km, you reach areas where towns are. [So] it requires a bit of rethinking about the hazards of a pyroclastic flow.”

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And given the speeds with which pyroclastic material can travel, there would be little time for action after an eruption. In fact, Lerner has suggested that pyroclastics are capable of moving at many tens of feet a second. So, this would mean that the discharge could reach a 15.5-mile radius within a matter of minutes.

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Additionally, Taranaki Civil Defence Emergency Management listed further dangers caused by volcanic activity. “An eruption of Mount Taranaki could produce volcanic hazards such as tephra falls, pyroclastic density currents, lava flows, lahars, flooding, debris avalanches, sector collapses, lightning and volcanic gases,” the group stated. “During unrest and eruption, significant earthquakes and ground deformation can also occur.”

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“Direct physical and ash fall impacts would potentially damage residential properties, commercial and industrial structures, infrastructure, transport and service routes and agricultural operations,” Taranaki Civil Defence Emergency Management continued. “Further hazards may well develop as a result of damage to hazardous chemical and fuel storage areas.”

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And in addition to the loss of life, an eruption of Mount Taranaki would also impact harshly upon North Island’s economy. Infrastructure would be destroyed, for example, and sectors such as farming and tourism would be hit. In fact, calculations have suggested that somewhere between $1 billion and $2.5 billion of losses could be caused in the immediate aftermath of an eruption.

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Furthermore, experts are struggling to predict how long an eruption would actually last for. As Professor Shane Cronin from Auckland University told The New Zealand Herald, “We have no modern experience of [Mount Taranaki’s] typically very long eruptions. Past research shows that once Mount Taranaki starts erupting, it continues for years, decades or centuries.”

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In any case, the conclusions and predictions of Lerner’s work have been offered up to the Taranaki Volcano Scientific Advisory Group. And according to reports, there are now plans for a revision of the emergency procedures currently in place. So one can only hope that this research was conducted in time – before the next inevitable eruption.

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