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Published 10 October 2017

2017 Rutherford Medal: Understanding supervolcanoes – from slumber to explosive eruption

Geologist Professor Colin Wilson FRS FRSNZ has been awarded the 2017 Rutherford Medal for his research into understanding large, explosive supervolcanoes and the hazards they pose.

The Rutherford Medal is the highest honour awarded by Royal Society Te Apārangi, and acknowledges a lifetime of significant scholarly research and the promotion of this knowledge to the benefit of New Zealand society. It comes with a prize of $100,000 from the government. 

 2017 Rutherford Medal Presentation

Presentation of Rutherford Medal by Governor-General, Her Excellency The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy GNZM QSO at the New Zealand Research Honours 2017.


Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy presents Rutherford Medal to Professor Colin Wilson

Professor Wilson has worked on many of the world’s supervolcanoes, including Taupo in New Zealand, and Long Valley and Yellowstone in the USA. He has developed and applied field and laboratory analysis techniques to map out the volcanic processes from slumber to massive eruption.  His research has helped us understand how, where and when molten rock gathers below volcanoes and the processes that operate during explosive eruptions. His work links events that happen over many thousands of years with those operating during some of the largest and most destructive eruptions known in New Zealand and globally.

His research on the massive Oruanui ‘super-eruption’ from Taupo around 25,500 years ago showed that it took a while to get going, with many stop and start cycles, before the massive explosion that created an enormous caldera. Today’s Lake Taupo only partly fills this caldera. The eruption would have been heard as far away as central Australia and Antarctica and is now known to have spread ash as far away as Antarctica. 


image Colin Wilson 04 Digging deep for science Custom

Digging deep for science

Another research area of Professor Wilson is the Kermadec Arc, where he has studied the volcanoes of Raoul, Macauley and Healy. In particular, his work with students on underwater eruptions at Macauley showed that the volcano did not erupt in either a violent explosion or a slow lava flow but instead produced buoyant lava balloons (described as ‘lava lamps on speed’). This new type of eruption was named by Professor Wilson and his team as the ‘Tangaroan’ eruptive style after the NIWA research ship that is itself named after the Māori god of the sea.

Professor Wilson has also applied his knowledge of the volcanoes in the central North Island to improving the knowledge and use of geothermal resources and determining volcanic geohazards in New Zealand (including developing a national volcanic hazard model in collaboration with GNS Science). 

In awarding the Rutherford Medal, the selection panel said: “Professor Wilson is a world-renowned geologist whose research has provided profound insight into how volcanoes behave. He is a meticulous, insightful and highly-productive researcher who melds acute field observations with advanced analytical techniques.”


image Colin Wilson 05 This rock Custom

In response to being awarded the Rutherford Medal, Professor Wilson said: “I am deeply grateful for this honour and the recognition that the Rutherford Medal brings. The work for which I am being recognised owes, however, a great debt to the many outstanding students and talented colleagues with whom I have worked over the years, and to my family for their support. It has been an enormously enjoyable journey of discovery, which I hope will continue for some while to come”.

Professor Wilson is based at the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. He was elected a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2001, the American Geophysical Union in 2006, and The Royal Society, London in 2015. He is a recipient of the Wager Medal of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior. 


Rutherford Medal:

For an exceptional contribution to the advancement and promotion of knowledge of science and technology for the benefit of New Zealand society. This medal is the highest honour awarded by Royal Society Te Apārangi.


To Colin James Ness Wilson for his world-renowned research, which has shown how large volcanoes behave before and during explosive eruptions

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi