The science of NZ supervolcanoes

*Watch the exclusive interview with Rutherford Medal-winner Professor Colin Wilson in the player above*

All eyes may be on Bali’s Mount Agung, as it rumbles ominously and threatens lives and livelihoods, but it’s the vast sleeping giants—the supervolcanoes—and the threat they pose that is the focus of research that has earned Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Colin Wilson the Rutherford Medal, New Zealand’s top science prize, awarded by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

A geologist from Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Professor Wilson has received the prestigious award for his development of advanced field and analytical techniques that have improved our knowledge of how supervolcanoes behave before and during eruptions.

“My job is to study the product of such eruptions … with a view to building up a picture of the hazards and impacts they might have. It’s really important to understand what makes these volcanoes tick,” he says.

Professor Wilson has worked on many of the world’s supervolcanoes, including Taupo in New Zealand, and Long Valley and Yellowstone in the United States, and has developed and applied field and laboratory analysis techniques to map out the volcanic processes from slumber to massive eruption.  

“Very big volcanic eruptions could lead to devastating global consequences, with regard to climate; this is in addition to the damage that would occur near the volcano itself. For example, with the 25,000-year-old Oruanui eruption at Taupo, all house roofs between the Bombay Hills and Christchurch would probably be brought down, and around 15,000 square kilometres of the central North Island would be unrecognisable,” he says.

The Rutherford Medal includes $100,000 prize money and acknowledges a lifetime of significant scholarly research and the promotion of this knowledge to the benefit of New Zealand society. For Professor Wilson, this includes applying his knowledge of the volcanoes in the central North Island to improving understanding and use of geothermal resources and determining volcanic geohazards in New Zealand (including work toward developing a national volcanic hazard model in collaboration with GNS Science and other universities).

“It’s an enormous honour to receive the Rutherford Medal … it inspires me to use this award to help others realise that you can do world-class scientific research in this country, and there’s so much more exciting geology and things to be discovered out there.”

Two other prominent academics from Victoria University have also been recognised at the Royal Society Research Honours ceremony for their work.

Professor Peter Tyler from Victoria’s Ferrier Research Institute was awarded the 2017 MacDiarmid Medal for his work on revolutionary drug design technology that targets the enzymes of many diseases, including cancer, gout, psoriasis, malaria and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The 2017 Humanities Aronui Medal was awarded to Emeritus Professor Laurie Bauer from Victoria’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies for his innovative research in descriptive linguistics—in particular, his influential work into the way words are constructed. He is considered a leading authority on compound words and has also carried out research on the grammar and accent of New Zealand English.

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