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Curtin University plays key role in unlocking supervolcano mystery

Media release

Research involving Curtin University is helping shed new light on the behaviour of the earth’s supervolcanoes.

View of Toba Lake in Sumatra, Indonesia. The lake occupies the caldera of a supervolcano.

Supervolcanoes are volcanoes on a massive scale. They are capable of producing eruptions of more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of magma which is thousands of times larger than any of the volcanic eruptions in the 21st century.

Supervolcanoes produce some of the world’s most catastrophic and hazardous events, yet little is known about the timelines surrounding post-super eruption activity including caldera formation and caldera resurgence.

The ability to clarify timelines around the resurgence of a supervolcano is crucial to helping scientists better understand future volcanic activity and thereby assist communities.

These processes are critical to improving our understanding of how supervolcanoes work and scientists’ ability to better predict their behaviour and address their potential hazards or risk.

The research, recently published in Nature Communications, included first-ever measurements allowing scientists to date minor volcanic eruptions that followed the last climactic eruption of Toba supervolcano about 75,000 years ago.

Dr Martin Danišík from Curtin University was part of a team of scientists working to unravel the mysteries of the resurgence of supervolcanoes.

Dr Danišík’s role was to supply critically important geochronological data to research partners by using his knowledge of a rare dating technique called Helium dating using high-end analytical equipment at the John de Laeter Centre at Curtin University.

“I was able to use this technique to help develop an application allowing the research team to date extremely young volcanic rocks that could not have been dated previously using conventional methods,” Dr Danišík said.

As part of the research, samples of pumice and lava from different locations in the Toba Caldera complex in northern Sumatra were crushed and sieved to separate zircons.

These were then analysed by a range of dating techniques, all of which are based on the decay of uranium, using cutting-edge analytical instruments.

“Scientists have long known that supervolcanoes have continuing eruptions, but this is the first time that we have been able to put accurate ages on the minor post-climactic eruptions, allowing us to further understand the complex resurgence process,” Dr Danišík said.

The project led by Oregon State University also involved researchers from the universities in Heidelberg, Stanford and from the Geological Agency of Indonesia.

The full research paper, Post-supereruption recovery at Toba Caldera, is available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15248