For years a major thing on my bucket list was to swim in a crater lake, which as the name suggests is a body of water formed in a volcanic crater or caldera. Luckily I got to tick this one of when I visited Nicaragua last year and swam in the blissfully warm Apoyo Lagoon, but of course this only appealed to my addictive nature and made me dream about going one better…how about a crater lake formed by a super eruption. When my friend told me she was off travelling for a few months and her first port of call would be New Zealand, I decided she could live my dream for me on this one and I straight away advised her to head to Lake Taupo. Of course to any one without local knowledge or a familiarity with historic eruptions, this would not be of any significance. To be honest neither would me telling them I want to go swim in a random lake in New Zealand. So I decide to write a peace on one of the largest eruptions in the past 70,000 years to explain just why it is so important.
With a surface area of 616 square kilometres (238 sq mi), it is the largest lake by surface area in New Zealand and the second largest freshwater lake in Oceania. Now it’s a popular tourist destination, an area of true natural beauty, but this tranquil lake was born from a violent even which occurred roughly 26,000 years ago.
The Taupo volcanic zones spans a hug area in North Island 350 kilometres (217 mi) long by 50 kilometres (31 mi) wide. Mount Ruapehu stands 2797 high and marks its southern limits, while a submarine volcano, Whakatane volcano, 85 kilometres (53 mi) beyond White Island is considered it’s north-eastern. Several volcanoes in the zone are still very active with Ruapehu and Tarawera causing New Zealand’s most deadly eruptions in the past few centuries (both events killing around 150 people each). None of these small events come close to the Taupo volcano itself after which the zone is named. The zone is caused by east-west rifting within plate the at a rate of 8mm per year, slowly pulling the Northern Island apart.
Taupo’s last eruption is referred to as the Hatepe eruption and has be dated at roughly 180 AD was a VEI 7 making it one of the largest in the past 5,000 years. It coincided with reports as far away as Rome and Northern China of brilliant red skyies and disruption to climate for several years. Haptepe spewed more material in to atmosphere than several of the largest eruptions of this century combined, but still it was nothing compared to the event which form the Taupo caldera and in turn Lake Taupo; the Oruanui eruption.
Its hard to imagine what the Northen Island looked like before the Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago with out the gapping hole that is Lake Taupo at its heart. The eruption released an estimated total of 1,170 km3 (280 cu mi) of material, a VEI 8 eruption making it the largest eruption of the past 70,000 years. It effected climate world wide for decades, many people saying it had a helping hand in the last glacial maximum. The effects are hard to comprehend when the largest volcanic eruption in human times was only a fraction of the size.
The eruption caused the Taupo magma chamber to collapse on its self creating the vast caldera which today Lake Taupo occupies just over two thirds of. Ash fall deposits from the eruption have been documented over 1000 km on Chatham Island showing the intensity of the blast. An event like this would decimate modern day New Zealand quiet possibly leaving no survivors on the Northern Island if not enough warning was given. Luckily though all is peaceful and scerene on the shores of the Great Lake and no threat appears to be imminent. That said Taupo still shows us gentle signs of the power beneath with its Craters of the Moon tourist attraction filled with steam vents and mud pools as well as numerous hot springs.
When people ask me why I study volcanology when the risk is “minimal” to human life in comparison to say earthquakes or flooding, this is a prime example which shows how little people know about what our planet is capable of. So Ginge, I hope you enjoy your trip and now understand a little more why Taupo is one part of your adventure I sincerely wish I was there!