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After 700 earthquakes, what happens next at the supervolcano Taupo?

After 700 earthquakes, what happens next at the supervolcano Taupo?


This map shows about 700 earthquakes recorded this year around the Taupo volcano, which is now at Alert Level 1 for the first time. Image / GeoNet

Scientists watching our most famous giant volcano say underground shaking around the unstable Taupo could continue through the summer — and they don’t rule out more local tremors.

But it’s also possible that the episode — which last month prompted GeoNet to raise its hidden caldera volcano alert level above zero for the first time ever — has already peaked.

The local sequence starting in May has generated more than 700 earthquakes: among them, 4.2 and many slightly smaller earthquakes that were recorded occurred within days of each other in mid-September.

The largest concentration was located around the central and eastern part of the lake, at depths between 4 km and 13 km, where scientists also monitored centimeters of continuous ground elevation.

In this area, scientists recently channeled a hidden magma chamber, which is believed to be located about 5 kilometers underground.

Earthquakes identified by GeoNet in the Lake Taupō region from January 1 to September 18, 2022. Most of the earthquakes shown here are at a depth of 4 to 13 km. Source / GeoNet

They suspect that the new activity is caused by magma moving within and crowding out in search of space, possibly due to new magma rising from below.

After five months, this episode has reached the mid-range for how long similar events have persisted, said GNS Science’s senior volcanologist and geophysicist Dr. Craig Miller.

“But we don’t expect it to stop, or anything like that – and there are international examples that support the fact that these things can go on for a while.”

Rather, it was possible, albeit less likely, that the activity would continue through the summer and beyond.

Previous events have been lasting between a few months and a year, said Dr. Finn-Elsley Kemp, a University of Victoria volcanic seismologist at the University of Victoria.

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“So we say we see the continuation of the current unrest for a few months to come,” he said.

“On the other hand, it is also possible that the disturbances have already peaked, and we will now see a steady decrease in earthquake background levels.”

Miller noted that the severity of the unrest could remain volatile.

“You may see a halt in activity in one week, but then a rebound in the following week,” he said.

“So we need to wait to make sure we’re not just on pause, and see a few months of reduced activity to make sure it’s over.”

If the turbulence goes the other way and escalates, it can lead to earthquakes large enough to cause ground shaking and landslides and liquefaction.

“Significantly higher levels of ground deformation – tens of centimeters or meters – will only occur at high levels of disturbance, and can have effects such as damaging underground services.”

Source / GeoNet

The last episode, in 2019, involved a 5.0 event that hit near Mototaiko Island, causing a shaking from Turangi to Taupo.

“Earthquakes of this size or larger are almost always possible in the center of the North Island due to the Taupo tectonic fault,” Elslie Kemp said.

“But during this state of slight disturbance, the chances of a 5.0-magnitude earthquake increase, as happened in 2019.

“This may cause some damage, so people in the area need to be prepared and if they feel a big earthquake remember to fall, cover and stabilize.”

He said trying to predict what will happen next in Taupō has remained difficult, since scientists can only refer to two events – 2008 and 2019 – with similar levels of observation.

“This means we can only see a limited snapshot of what disruptions to Topo could look like, and how long they can last,” said Elsie Kemp.

“This is a real difficulty to monitor caldera volcanoes like Taupō around the world, because the time frames in which they operate far exceed the time we were collecting data.”

Scientists have been working hard to develop a range of possible future scenarios for Taupō – and an actual eruption certainly remains unlikely.

Of the 17 episodes in the past 150 years, none ended with a major event.

One 2020 modeling study put the annual probability of a Taupo eruption of any size at a very low chance of one in 800 – or between 0.5 and 1.3 percent – over the next 500 years.

Source / GeoNet

However, a volcano has always been capable of causing massive events, as it has throughout its 300,000-year volcanic history.

Lake Taupo itself essentially fills the crater left by one of these holes – the massive Uruanui eruption about 25,400 years ago, in which more than 1,100 cubic kilometers of pumice and ash were ejected into the planet’s atmosphere.

Since then, there have been approximately 28 smaller ones that we know of: the most recent one was the Hataba eruption 1,800 years ago, which was still large enough to obliterate the surrounding landscape.




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