Story: Historic volcanic activity

The world’s most dramatic volcanic eruption in 5,000 years occurred in New Zealand about 200 AD. The Taupō eruption devastated much of the central North Island, emptying Lake Taupō in the process. Since people have settled in the volatile land, they have seen its active volcanoes – Tarawera, Rangitoto, Taranaki (Egmont), Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe, Ruapehu and White Island – intermittently and unpredictably spew fountains of hot ash and lava.

Full story by Eileen McSaveney, Carol Stewart and Graham Leonard
Main image: Tarawera erupting, 1886

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The Taupō eruption

About 200 AD, before the Polynesian ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand, an eruption in the centre of the North Island blasted ash and pumice high into the sky. The crater it left behind became filled with water, and is today’s Lake Taupō.

Tarawera

The unusual shape of Mt Tarawera formed during eruptions around 1314 AD. Māori might have been living in the area at the time.

The volcano erupted again in June 1886 – it was the deadliest in the history of New Zealand settlement. Before the eruption, people reported seeing a phantom Māori war canoe on the lake below the volcano. The eruption sent a cloud of lava and ash 10 kilometres high, and destroyed many of the villages in the area. About 120 people were killed.

Tongariro

In 1868, violent earthquakes occurred when Mt Tongariro erupted. This eruption formed the upper Te Maari crater, named after a Māori chieftainess.

Ngāuruhoe

Mt Ngāuruhoe is really part of the Tongariro volcano. It pours out ash about once every six years. There were large eruptions in 1870, in the late 1940s, and in 1954. The most recent eruption was in 1975, when huge blocks of red-hot lava were thrown many kilometres from the mountain.

Ruapehu

The earliest-known eruption of Mt Ruapheu was in 1861. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were more, some of them forming hot mud flows called lahars. Eruptions of huge clouds of ash in 1945 gave people sore throats and eyes, and smothered crops and farmland. Ash stuck to cars, houses and machinery.

The Tangiwai disaster

In the 1945 eruptions, rubble had built up around Ruapehu’s Crater Lake. In 1953 the rubble collapsed. The lake burst its banks, and the flow of water and rocks that went down the mountain knocked over a railway bridge. A train travelling over the bridge tumbled into the river below, and 151 people were drowned.

Recent volcanic activity

Mt Ruapehu erupted most recently in 1995–96. Mud flowed through the Whakapapa ski field, and the slopes of the mountain were covered with volcanic ash.

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How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney, Carol Stewart and Graham Leonard. 'Historic volcanic activity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 4-Feb-13
URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/historic-volcanic-activity