The science of the inevitable Taupo apocalypse

A couple of weeks back I read Firelands, debut dystopian thriller by US author Piper Bayard. To call the book fantastic is an understatement. I was hooked from the first pages, dropping the book I was writing myself, despite looming contract deadline, so I could keep reading.

A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. Not a placid lake filled with trout. Well, it is. But it's also the caldera of one of the world's biggest supervolcanoes. Uh - yay.
A photo I took a few years ago. Taupo. A placid lake filled with trout. And the caldera of one of the world’s biggest supervolcanoes. Uh – yay.

Firelands is set in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become a theocratic dictatorship – a provocative setting that makes the novel far more than just Hunger Games for grown-ups. Firelands is in a class of its own. A wonderful, insightful, thoughtful and exciting story.

Bayard’s instrument of doom is a supervolcano – Taupo – that casts the world into darkness.  A scenario that’s not just plausible. It’s already happened at least twice.

I live within 260 km of Taupo’s Hatepe vent, so I thought I’d post about the historical apocalypse while scrabbling for my asbestos suit, hard hat and breathing apparatus.

On the face of it, Taupo is a lake with thermal district. The full name is Taupo-nui-a-Tia; ‘the great cloak of Tia’, referring to a flax cloak of the rangitira Tia. It’s often mispronounced. The first syllable rhymes with ‘tow’ as in ‘towing along’. Technically, Taupo should also have a macron over the o, indicating a long vowel. In IPA terms it’s ‘tau-poh, which is close.

Photo taken by my wife one day in early 2005 of the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.
Photo my wife took in early 2005 when we visited the Orakei Korako thermal zone just north of Taupo.

Pakeha (white settlers) got to know it in the 1840s. Donald McLean, the dour, God-fearing Presbyterian Scot who trudged into the district in 1846, saw a Christian apocalypse, confiding to his diary that ‘No person could see this place without feeling intensely the awful end of a miserable sinner, when committed to his last home; and may God in His providence prepare us all for such a serious change…’

The science behind that hellish setting emerged only as vulcanology developed through the twentieth century.

Turns out the lake is a caldera, part of an immense volcanic field stretching from Mount Ruapehu  to the Whakatane underwater volcano. The field has erupted many times. White Island is active now, monitored by a webcam and plastic dinosaur.

Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate power - up to 13 percent of the North Island's needs, in fact. The techniques were developed right here in New Zealand.
Geothermal steam from the Taupo system is used to generate up to 13 percent of the North Island’s power. This is my photo of the Wairakei station. The techniques were developed  in New Zealand.

All are dwarfed by Taupo itself, the centre of the system. The last eruption around 180 AD, from the Hatepe vents near the south of the lake, was modest by Taupo standards, but still cast the world into shadow.

The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. From
The Oruanui eruption, Taupo, 26,500 BP. Via Wikipedia.

The benchmark remains the Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago  (earlier analysis cited 22,690 ±230 BP), to the north of the current lake and the world’s last eruption to score 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index – the maximum. Back then, the lake was different, known to paleogeographers as Lake Huka. In 2012, PhD student Aidan Allen discovered the trigger for this cataclysm was likely an earthquake.

The eruption blew out the current lake bed – and more. Everything in the central North Island was destroyed by a fall of ingimbrite some 200 metres deep. Then there were devastating floods. Even the major river, the Waikato, changed its course. Ash fell  as far away as the Chathams.

It was a world cataclysm. Although debate continues over specific triggers for Pleistocene glacial cycles, there is evidence that the worldwide glacial maximum that began 26,500 years ago was pushed, in part, by this eruption. In New Zealand, certainly, a warming period prior to the eruption came to a dead stop afterwards.

Oruanui may not have caused the glacial cycle alone – but  it made things worse. Humanity was nearly wiped out in the deep cold that followed. The downturn seems to have been the last blow for Neanderthals, our cousin species already reduced to the edge of extinction at Gibraltar. It destroyed a nascent H. Sapiens agricultural revolution among the Gravettian culture in what are now Russian steppelands. Had that not been cut short, civilisation might have been with us 20,000 years earlier.

This was the apocalypse, Pleistocene style.

And to give that perspective, the Oruanui blast was itself dwarfed by the Whakamaru eruption in the same zone, 254,000 years ago.

We’ll have warning before the next one. Taupo is monitored by New Zealand’s Geological and Nuclear Sciences department via GPS and seismographic stations. No rubber dinosaur, but hey…

Hopefully it won’t happen in our lifetimes. Because when it does, it will bring the apocalypse. Certainly for New Zealand, maybe the world.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013 

16 thoughts on “The science of the inevitable Taupo apocalypse

  1. That history is fascinating, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to finally learn the correct pronounciation of Taupo.

    Thank you for your generous assessment of FIRELANDS. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Totally makes my day.


    1. Credit where it’s deserved – you’ve written a fantastic novel and all strength to your writing arm – and Holmes’s – for your spy novels! Good stuff.

      Most Kiwis can’t pronounce Taupo either – the obvious English rhyme with ‘how-poe’ is how it was always said, but not of late as it isn’t how Maori pronounce it. However, no pakeha seems to quite ‘get’ the Te Reo (‘the language’/Maori) pronounciation. Partly because there isn’t a direct English phonetic equivalent – we’re still suffering from the approximations invented by nineteenth century missionaries – and partly because many pakeha tend to overdo it. We get ‘Tae-poo’, ‘Tow-pooh’, ‘Toe-poe’, ‘Toa-poa’, and everything between. My wife speaks Te Reo fairly fluently and points the local mangling of it out to me.


      1. Interesting to speak of pronunciations, as I credit my reasonable pronunciation of French to my learning Maori throughout my years in primary school. The French vowels and the Maori vowels are almost exactly the same, with the exception of “e” which in Maori is like “eh” and in French is more like “er”. It took me a while to realise this, wondering why it wasn’t so difficult for me compared to an American friend in the same class as me when we were practicing French.

        I wonder if it’s more of a social thing, of who we are around and how they speak, because living in another country as I do here, it’s in one’s interests to learn how to pronounce words correctly, in order to be respected. When we continuously mangle a language in front of its native speakers, we become perceived in a way that makes us want to change. I don’t think New Zealanders feel that way, I think it’s more socially acceptable to mangle the Maori language, that it doesn’t change or affect our social status, it’s a pity in a way.

        However, learning to make these different vowel sounds as a child is definitely an advantage.


        1. At the moment we seem to have two sorts of pakeha here (a) the ones who don’t care about Maori pronounciation, and (b) the ones who over-compensate. All rather sad either way because Te Reo is such a wonderful, expressive and practical language, full of colour and life, and metaphor, and a joy to listen to.


  2. A very interesting post. If the apocalypse comes this way I’d rather have a front-row seat like you and go quickly than starve and freeze in the dark later.

    Firelands sounds interesting. Especially the theocracy-part.


    1. Yes, a quick and clean end is best in these situations. The last major eruption in the Taupo field a couple of years ago resulted in a cloud of hydrogen sulphide drifting across the lower North Island, which wasn’t too good – though it kind of underscored that the eruption, really, was little more than flatulence as far as this volcanic system is concerned.

      ‘Firelands’ is an astonishingly good read. It wasn’t just the nature of the apocalypse that was plausible, And chilling.


  3. Fascinating, supervolcanoes are the things many don’t wish to know exist. I often use an English lesson (for practicing numbers) which mentions many fabulous statistics about the supervolcano in yellowstone national park, whose caldera covers an area of something like 85 x 45 km and has risen 75cm in the last 100 years or so. It certainly dispels any desire to want to live forever! The text insinuates it is overdue for eruption (based on an average eruption every 600,000 years, this one has been quiet for 640,000 years I believe – that’s quite some overdue date). 🙂

    Thanks for the information, I didn’t know Taupo was a supervolcano.


    1. Taupo’s on the same scale as Yellowstone…unfortunately… 🙂 Another one’s Toba, which ‘blew’ 70,000 years ago and is thought to have created a specific species bottleneck for us, hence the unusual lack of genetic diversity in modern humanity.


  4. I’m trying to remember an article I read recently about a period in h. sapiens prehistory when our species was down to less than one thousand representatives, huddled somewhere in an East African cave; and I want to think it was about 250,000 years ago. Old age appears to be setting in, because while I can remember the details of the article, darned if I can remember the title or where I read it!

    Anyway that 250,000 year more or less figure would put that near the earlier Taupo eruption you mention. Also correlates with a Scientific American article about most of humanity being descended from a single female who lived about that same time frame, 250,000 years ago, as based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA.

    From time to time I wonder if events like that can shape the psychology of an emergent sapient species, inflicting on future generations a sort of permanent PTSD. It might explain our morbid fascination with apocalyptic scenarios.


    1. I wonder the same thing. Apocalypse seems to be a part of human thinking across so many diverse peoples, cultures – and through our history – that I wouldn’t be surprised to find this was hard-wired into us. And maybe it wouldn’t take a cataclysm to do it – I suspect life was hard enough that even a few bad seasons might have knocked over a tribe or band that got too large. We were always living on the edge of doom in those senses, I suspect, and maybe developed to expect or believe it was inevitable. This isn’t to deny the fact that we were also knocked back, almost to destruction, by disastrous natural events – that, I am sure, was part of the mix.


  5. As always, a fascinating post, Matthew. I had been wondering about Taupo since reading Piper’s novel but frankly, it would have been a while before I did some research. I believe I had it on your side of the world but my volcano knowledge is limited to Yellowstone and that is not extensive. In fact, you give me yet another way to consider FIRELANDS for I just let the volcanoes ash in the background, until now. I knew you’d like the novel and what a wonderful way to give us another perspective on it. Thanks!


    1. I commented to Piper that I live on the doorstep of the ‘Firelands’ apocalypse! As she pointed out, if she’d portrayed Yellowstone blowing, there wouldn’t have been a US to set the story in. It’s a completely realistic scenario – when Taupo (or Toba, or Yellowstone) blows, it’ll deliver destruction, possibly worldwide via the Co2 and sulphuric acid aerosols. Luckily, although Taupo seems to blow more often than Yellowstone, the intervals are still pretty high. Our other volcanoes, though, go more often – Tarawera went in 1886 with many deaths; Ruapehu blows regularly, and Tongariro (actually a vent of Ngaruahoe) blew in 2011. The last really big Ngaruahoe eruption was in 1868-69, an apocalyptic backdrop to a military campaign against Te Kooti, Maori religious leader who was leading his people to their Jerusalem. A story filled with astonishing emotion which I was fortunate enough to be able to document and publish a few years back.


  6. Another reminder that we (humans) are just visitors on this planet, and not as in control as we’d like to think we are. Nature is truly humbling. Thank you for sharing this fascinating bit of history. And of course, the recommendation for FIRELANDS! I think I’m going to have to sneak reading FIRELANDS in between the 8 books I’ve already committed to reading for my blog. Shhhh. Don’t tell. 🙂


    1. That’s what I was going to do – I have a pile of books that have to be read. Then I read the first page of ‘Firelands’…Stack got reorganised pronto… 🙂

      It was James Watt, I think, who insisted some stage in the 1760s that nature could be conquered ‘if only we found find her weak point’. Alas for his hopes, nature doesn’t have one. Which is a good thing, really.


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