The Geological Survey of New Zealand raised the alert for the Taupo volcano on Tuesday after registering some 700 earthquakes in the lake formed by the volcano’s caldera, which caused the largest eruption on Earth in millennia when it last exploded about 1,800 years ago.
GeoNet indicated in a statement that it establishes alert level 1 (minor volcanic disturbances) – out of a maximum of 6 – with a ‘very low’ possibility of it erupting, although scientists do not rule out an increase in activity.
‘The minor volcanic agitation causes the current earthquakes and the deformation of the floor of the Taupo volcano’, in the central region of the North Island, says the government agency, which ensures that these tremors can last ‘weeks or months’.
These earthquakes, at depths of between 4 and 13 kilometres, could cause landslides and liquefaction of the soil – a process that converts the soil into a liquid mass -, the entity recalls.
On the shores of the lake, about 380 kilometres north of Wellington, there are several towns, including the homonymous city of Taupo, with about 26,000 inhabitants.
In the last 150 years, Taupo has recorded 17 times of similar and even more severe activity without exploding. Around 230 AD, the Taupo volcano ejected some 120 cubic kilometres of volcanic material into the atmosphere, the largest eruption in the last 5,000 years, according to Geonet.
Since 1870, there have been 17 episodes of unrest in Taupō, including four that could have been classified as alert level two, had the system existed, according to GeoNet. Although, none of those events caused an eruption.
New Zealand has intense seismic and volcanic activity as it sits on the southeastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire.
In December 2019, 22 people lost their lives and 25 others were seriously injured as a result of the eruption of the Whakaari volcano, also known as White Island, while it was being visited by tour groups.
What if Lake Taupo volcano erupts?
Whether a catastrophic eruption buries the North Island in ash or leaves most of it relatively unscathed depends on the weather, new research has found. The Taupō volcano last erupted more than 1,800 years ago and is today filled by New Zealand’s largest lake.
Most of the North Island of New Zealand would be covered in sulphurous ash that would kill everything. There would have been a few days’ warning, but not enough capacity to get everyone off the island in that time.
The North Island of New Zealand would be suffocated under a thick blanket of smoke and lava. Chunks of rock and ash would rain down from the sky, likely causing more tragedies. As for Australia, there would not be as much of an impact other than if the ash cloud heads west-northwest and hits the coast of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.
In that case, Australia would experience a cooling effect from the ash cloud and perhaps some deaths from respiratory complications. Other than that, most Australians wouldn’t feel as much of an impact.
Because volcanic activity can indicate impending eruptions, the researchers said New Zealand officials probably should have issued a ‘minor volcanic disturbance’ alert. However, they acknowledged that it would have been difficult for officials to determine the cause of the earthquakes in real-time. After all, it’s not easy to monitor volcanoes, especially Taupo, many of which lie under a 238-square-mile lake. It is even more difficult to forecast eruptions. One key reason is that volcanic upheaval always precedes eruptions, but eruptions do not always follow volcanic activity.
Will Taupo erupt soon?
The 2020 paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters put the annual odds of such an eruption occurring over the next 500 years between 0.5 and 1.3 per cent. The magma needs more time to build up before there is likely to be superimposition.
However, volcanic eruptions worldwide have killed about 2,000 people since 2000, and 22 of them died when a stratovolcano erupted on New Zealand’s White Island in 2019. The researchers behind the new study said their findings highlight the need for improvement in Monitoring techniques.
‘Taupo needs to be carefully monitored to better understand the processes at depth and the factors that may cause similar disturbances to escalate into an eruption in the future,’ the researchers wrote.
The Taupō volcano first began to erupt more than 300,000 years ago. It is very large and has many vents, most of which are now under Lake Taupō. Geological surveys of Taupō show that the volcano makes up only the northern half of the lake and a small surrounding area, but there have been numerous eruptions from different sites within this large volcano.
Earthquakes could continue
The agency added that while it was the first time it had raised the Taupo volcano’s alert level to 1, it was not the first time there had been activity, and said the chance of an eruption remained very low.
‘The earthquakes and deformation could continue for the next few weeks or months,’ he said.
New Zealand straddles the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates and experiences significant volcanism and earthquakes.
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