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New Technique Opens Window On Volcanic Area

NEWS RELEASE, 21 DECEMBER 1999

NEW TECHNIQUE OPENS WINDOW ON VOLCANIC AREA

New Zealand and Japanese scientists are on the brink of gaining an improved understanding of what drives the volcanoes and geothermal systems in the central North Island.

The subsurface processes that characterise the volcanic plateau, caldera volcanism in particular, have been a challenge for scientists to understand. The volcanic plateau is recognised internationally as one of the largest and most frequently active volcanic systems on earth.

For decades scientists have speculated about the size and location of magma bodies (huge volumes of molten rock) that lie under what they call the Taupo Volcanic Zone (TVZ). The TVZ is a broad belt of volcanism and geothermal activity that extends northeast from Mt Ruapehu to White Island. Finding a way to successfully identify and image the magma has eluded scientists.

There are problems in using conventional seismic reflection techniques for imaging the earth's interior in volcanic areas. Seismic signals, so useful for finding oil and gas in non-volcanic areas, are difficult to interpret because of "noise" and reverberation in the TVZ.

So scientists from the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited (GNS) have turned to electromagnetic techniques that measure the conductivity of structures within the earth's crust and upper mantle. One of these techniques is magnetotellurics, which uses low frequency electromagnetic waves to measure electrical conductivity of rocks within the earth.

By making measurements at a number of places, scientists can build up a picture of rock formations. Geothermal fluid, clay, and magma are good conductors of electricity and are relatively easy to identify using this technique.

Using state-of-the-art equipment supplied by the Geological Survey of Japan, GNS and Japanese scientists recently took magnetotelluric measurements at a number of sites northeast of Taupo.

The data has shown several features in the crust and upper mantle. Most intriguing is an electical conductor 10 to 12km beneath the TVZ which scientists believe may be magma. Further measurements will map the extent of this feature and confirm its identity.

GNS geophysicist and project leader Hugh Bibby emphasises that the research is still in its early stages, but he believes the potential of this technique is considerable. When magma can be identified with confidence, it will open the door to research that has not been possible until now.

" Identifying magma with this technique will help define new research targets that will lead to a greatly improved understanding of how these magmatic systems work," Dr Bibby says.

" One of the outcomes will be improved monitoring of volcanic areas in the central North Island."

When it last erupted in 181AD, Taupo threw out 40 cubic kilometres of volcanic material which covered parts of the central North Island in several metres of ash and pumice. It produced a violent blast of ground-hugging molten material that destroyed almost everything in its path to a distance of about 90km from Taupo. It also erupted a 50km-high ash column that affected visibility in both hemispheres.

" Prior to such big eruptions, a huge volume of magma needs to accumulate at shallow depth. By identifying the magma we will be able to determine if there are any changes in the rate at which it is accumulating. Ultimately we want to find out what makes it suddenly become unstable and produce an eruption."

Answers to these question should not only help forecast eruptions, but will also help researchers understand the heat transfer mechanisms occurring in the TVZ - one of the largest and youngest accumulations of acidic volcanic rocks in the world.

Dr Bibby's work is funded by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology with the Japanese Government contributing additional funds because of the relevance of the research to Japan and other volcanic areas worldwide.

Dr Bibby has won international acclaim for his trailblazing work in the use of electrical techniques to understand the subterranean workings of geothermal and volcanic areas. His success at obtaining meaningful results from large-scale field projects has seen magnetotellurics develop into a valuable method for improving the knowledge of New Zealand's unique caldera volcanism.
· Caldera volcanoes usually erupt so violently that they leave a depression in the ground.

END

For more information contact:
Hugh Bibby
Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Ltd, Ph: 04-570-4803 (reception), 04-570-4804 (direct)
OR John Callan
Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Ltd, Ph: 04-570-1444 (w), 04-389-1245 (h),
mobile 025-402-571

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