New Zealand scientists have increased the alert level for a volcano below the country’s biggest lake, which caused the largest eruption on Earth in the past 5,000 years when it last exploded about 1,800 years ago.
In a statement, geological agency GeoNet said it had detected almost 700 small earthquakes below Lake Taupo, the caldera created by the giant volcano, and had raised the volcanic alert level to 1 — minor volcanic unrest — from 0.
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The volcanic alert system is based on six escalating levels, but GeoNet notes that eruptions may occur at any level, and levels may not move in sequence as activity can change rapidly.
The Taupo volcano spewed more than 100 cubic kilometres of material into the atmosphere when it last erupted around 200 AD, devastating a large area of New Zealand’s central North Island in a period before human habitation.
GeoNet says the eruption was the largest on the planet in the past 5,000 years.
The agency added while it was the first time it had raised the Taupo Volcano 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 coming weeks or months,” it said.
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As reported on the GeoNet website:
There has been an increase in earthquakes and deformation (ground movement) at Taupō since May 2022 indicating volcanic unrest is occurring. The Volcanic Alert Level (VAL) change this week has been informed by our ongoing analysis of monitoring data, increased knowledge of Taupō Volcano from research programmes and new knowledge of causes of past unrest at Taupō Volcano.
Although this is the first time we have raised the VAL to 1, this is not the first volcanic unrest at Taupō. There have been 17 previous episodes of unrest over the past 150 years. Several of these were more severe than what we are currently observing at Taupō. None of these episodes, or the many other episodes which would have occurred over the past 1800 years before written records were kept, ended in an eruption. The last eruption at Taupō volcano was in 232 AD ± 10 years. The chance of an eruption at Taupō remains very low in any one year.
The earthquakes and deformation could continue for the coming weeks or months. While some of the earthquakes may be felt in areas around Lake Taupō, the deformation is currently only detectable by our sensitive monitoring instruments. GNS Science continues to actively monitor the volcano.
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The earthquake sequence beneath the central part of Lake Taupō has continued. We have now located almost 700 earthquakes, mainly at a depth of 4 to 13 km beneath the lake (Figure 1).
The earthquake locations in this year’s sequence are forming two clusters in the central part of the lake. There is a cluster beneath the central and eastern part of the lake and a smaller, western cluster centred just offshore from Karangahape.
Shown in Figure 2 is the number of earthquakes detected and located each year since 2000 in the dashed area outlined in the map (Figure 1).
In addition to seismic activity, GeoNet continuously monitors ground deformation (land movement) about Lake Taupō. Our GNSS (GPS) instruments around the lake have observed uplift at a rate of 60 ± 20 mm per year since May 2022 at a site at Horomatangi Reef in the lake. Modelling of the GNSS data indicates that the area that is rising beneath the lake is in the same place as the main region of earthquake activity. This is also where we interpret the existing magmatic system to be located.
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We interpret the ground uplift and earthquake activity to be caused by the movement of magma and the hydrothermal fluids inside the volcano. We have also sampled springs and gas vents around the lake for changes in chemistry that may be related to the earthquake and ground uplift.
Volcanic unrest is when magma or magma-heated hot water and steam forces its way through the ground beneath a volcano, producing earthquakes, ground movement and changes in hydrothermal systems. There have been 17 previous episodes of unrest over the past 150 years at Taupō Volcano (Figure 3).
Episodes of unrest are common at calderas around the world. Volcanic unrest at volcanoes like Taupō could continue for months or years and not result in an eruption.
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If there was increased unrest, then we would see more substantial impacts on the local area like:
- Earthquakes with ground shaking and potentially landslides on steep cliffs, especially after rain.
- Liquefaction can occur in the event of larger earthquakes.
- Substantially higher levels of ground deformation, 10s of centimeters or meters, would only occur at higher unrest levels, but could have impacts such as damaging underground services.
- Changes in geothermal activity may also occur with stronger, evolving unrest. This could be beneath the lake or at established geothermal areas in the Taupō area.
The Volcanic Alert Level reflects the current level of volcanic unrest or activity and is not a forecast of future activity. While Volcano Alert Level 1 is mostly associated with environmental hazards, potential for eruption hazards also exists.
New Zealand straddles the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates and experiences significant volcanism and earthquakes.