Most people in the world agree on one thing: it is safer to live far from a volcano then it is living right on top of it. Living next too, or on top of a volcano is like sleeping in a cave with a friendly bear. Sure, it has it’s advantages, you stay nice and warm, you don’t have to worry about other predators, a good part of the year it is nice and quiet, but still….. you know that some day he will grab you and eat you. The inhabitants (some more permanent than others) of Herculanum, Pompeï, Heimaey and the Hawaiian Royal Gardens have found out the hard way.
New Zealand is, apart from being stunningly beautiful, one of the least populated countries in the World. When Western settlers arrived they could have chosen any location to go and build large cities. For some reason however, the inhabitants found it neccesary to build their largest city directly on top of a volcanic field with about 50 scoria cones, maars and tuff rings dotting the landscape. I suppose the knowledge of volcanism was not as developed back then as it is today, but nevertheless it is quite unfortunate.
New Zealand is dominated by subduction volcanism, with famous Mount Taranaki (or Egmont) as one of the most visually stunning stratovolcanoes in the world from both the ground and above, and with the infamous Taupo Volcanic Zone, best known for being one of the worlds “super” volcanoes. At 250 km from Auckland this is already quite a hazard on itself.
The Auckland Volcanic Field is a monogenetic volcanic field, meaning that an eruptive episode only happens once through a vent. Each eruptive episode generates a new vent somewhere within the volcanic field as opposed to “normal” volcanism where a volcanic vent has succesive eruptive episodes causing a volcano to build up and blow up occasionaly. The Auckland Volcanic Field produces basaltic scoria cones, maars and tuff rings (with the exception of the island of Rangitoto which erupted several times). All three are caused by the same type of magma, basaltic magma in this case, but the location the surface penetration, the eruptive flowrate and the total volume of the basalt determine the type of surface expression. The volcanic field has been active for about 150.000 (0.15M) years now. Older volcanic fields are found towards the south; South Auckland (1.5-0.5M), Ngatutura (1.8-1.5M) and Okete (1.8-2.7M).
The source of the basalt is not quite clear however. Basalt is normally not associated with subduction volcanism. Petrology and earthquake data have practically ruled out the possibility of the lava having an origin in melt generated by the subducting Pacific Plate. The Auckland volcanic field also sits some 200 km behind the active volcanic front of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the subducted Pacific plate reaches all the way to the Auckland volcanic Field.
Basalt is usually associated with mid-oceanic ridges/spreading centers or hotspot volcanism. Again, petrology has not been able to find much evidence for hotspot volcanism either. Additionaly, the propagation of the volcanic fields is directy opposite to the relative motion of the plate; the oldest volcanic field should have been in the north and the youngest in the south if a hotspot or mantle plume was involved. It is possible that the complex geology with major plates subducting, twisting and turning in the area is causing localised decompressional melting , leading to magma migration upwards right below the city of Auckland. There is some extention ongoing in the area, so this seems like a plausible explanation.
Monogenetic volcanic fields are very interesting and highly unpredictable. The eruptions are not very large or extremely violent, but they can occur pretty much anywhere within the field at any time. With a large city with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants spanning the field, this is exactly what you don’t want. Paricutin in Mexico is the most famous example of this type of volcanism. One day you are happily working your crops, the next day you have to flee from your land because a volcano decided to take over your land. Bad luck, deal with it. Any new eruption within the Auckland Volcanic field will have as much compassion with buildings, streets, highways, parks and emergency shelters as Paricutin had with the crops that were growing there. This is what makes Auckland a relatively dangerous place to live in because it is not clear how much warning time there will be and how accurately the location of an eruption can be predicted with modern equipment.
The reason why new volcanoes pop up at random has to do with the generation of the magma. It is important that the generation occurs very slow. Slow enough to be unable to build a plumbing system that would efficiently conduct the magma to surface. Every new, hot, fresh slug of magma finds it’s own path to the surface, erupts and that’s it. The conduit cools and is no longer usable for the next slug of magma that arrives several decades or hundreds of years later below a slightly different part of the volcanic field. There is not enough magma flowing into one area to create a magma chamber in which the magma can evolve and produce more silicic types of magma.
We have all seen the Hollywood movie “Volcano” and no doubt that many Los Angeles citizens have had a very good laugh at it (the La Brea tar pits are the surface expression of a leaking oilfield through a fault, it has nothing to do with volcanism whatsoever), but for the citizens of Auckland, those images are not even very far from the truth. The past gives an excellent example of what can happen. The next eruption in the field will most likely follow this scenario:
1 – Magma is forced upward through weak points in the crust.
2 – Either the magma contacts ground-water, or reduced pressure near the surface causes gases to bubble out of solution. The result is a phraetic or steam-blast eruption. The heaviest material is thrown out horizontally to form a tuff ring. Lighter material is blasted vertically to form an eruptive column. After a few days, weeks or months, the volcano falls quiet. Several of Auckland’s volcanos became extinct at this point.
3 – Additional magma may rise in the conduit. If enough magma is supplied, fire fountaining starts through one or more vents. Small lava flows may be produced, which do not escape the tuff ring. Sometimes the eruptions build scoria cones.
4- If fire fountaining continues beyond this point, the scoria cones can coalesce to rise and bury the tuff ring. Lava flows can also fill the surrounding valleys.
5 – Sometimes the outflow of lava is so great that it undermines the cone, which collapses into the flow and is carried away, leaving a horseshoe-shaped breached crater. If lava flows for long enough, nearby valleys are totally filled in and the lava floods the entire area with a large sheet.
Isn’t that just wonderful right in your own neighbourhood?
The big question that remains is then: When is the next eruption going to be? Well, you will have to chop off one of the arms of a geologist to get a clear answer on that, but there are usually several hundred to several thousand years between eruptions in this field. The last one was about 600 years ago, so it might be a while before it is “overdue”, but it might be soon as well.