A veteran volcanologist has won New Zealand's top research honour for his work on explosive supervolcanoes and the threat they pose to us.

Victoria University's Professor Colin Wilson, who is now leading an $8.2 million, five-year study into the risk of a New Zealand super-eruption, has been awarded the Rutherford Medal at the Royal Society Te Aparangi's annual Research Honours dinner.

Wilson has worked on many of the world's supervolcanoes, including Taupo, and Long Valley and Yellowstone in the United States.

His work has pioneered new techniques to map out the volcanic processes from slumber to massive eruption, and has helped us understand how, where and when molten rock gathers below volcanoes.

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Perhaps most impressively, Wilson's research has been able to link long-term cycles with some of the largest and most destructive eruptions known to science.

His research showed how there was a long build-up to the massive Oruanui super-eruption from Taupo about 25,500 years ago, which created an enormous caldera that Lake Taupo fills only part of today.

Scientists believe the eruption would have been heard in central Australia and spread ash as far as Antarctica.

Wilson has also studied the volcanoes of Raoul, Healy and Macauley in the Kermadec Arc - in the latter volcano, he showed how it didn't produce a violent explosion, but buoyant lava balloons, jokingly described as "lava lamps on speed".

This new type of eruption was named by Wilson and his team as the "Tangaroan" eruptive style, after the Niwa research vessel that is itself named after the Maori god of the sea.

In a new government-funded study he and colleagues aim to create a state-of-the-art model to clear up some of the uncertainty surrounding the risk of supervolcanoes.

Professor Colin Wilson, in his lab at Victoria University. Photo / Supplied
Professor Colin Wilson, in his lab at Victoria University. Photo / Supplied

Super-eruptions are extremely rare: in the past 2.8 million years only 10 have been recorded, four of them in our Central North Island.

"Professor Wilson is a world-renowned geologist whose research has provided profound insight into how volcanoes behave," stated the selection panel that awarded him the honour.

"He is a meticulous, insightful and highly productive researcher who melds acute field observations with advanced analytical techniques."

Wilson said he was "deeply grateful" for the honour and the recognition that it brought.

"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."

Top researchers honoured

Wilson was among 21 people presented awards at the gala event in Auckland, which was timed to fall exactly 150 years from the date that the recently renamed Royal Society Te Aparangi was established.

The Health Research Council awarded the Liley Medal to the University of Otago's Associate Professor Jonathan Broadbent, for a study showing a clear long-term association between a child's upbringing and the state of their teeth as a middle-aged adult, and the Beaven Medal to the University of Auckland's Professor Alistair Gunn, for pioneering the use of mild cooling to treat babies with brain injuries at birth.

Professor Kim Pickering, of the University of Waikato, was awarded the Scott Medal for her development of composite materials that were more sustainable. Photo / Supplied
Professor Kim Pickering, of the University of Waikato, was awarded the Scott Medal for her development of composite materials that were more sustainable. Photo / Supplied

The Thomson Medal went to Cawthron Institute chief executive Professor Charles Eason, for his work at the Nelson centre and his leadership in drug development and pest control, while the Callaghan Medal for science communication was awarded to high-profile University of Auckland geneticist Professor Peter Shepherd.

Professor Sally Brooker, of the University of Otago, was awarded the Hector Medal for designing and making molecules with exceptional properties such as the ability to act like a switch or magnet or to accelerate chemical reactions.

Professor Stephen Henry, of Auckland University of Technology, was awarded the Pickering Medal for his surface-modification technology, Kode Technology. Photo / File
Professor Stephen Henry, of Auckland University of Technology, was awarded the Pickering Medal for his surface-modification technology, Kode Technology. Photo / File

The Hutton Medal was presented to Dr Roger Cooper of GNS Science for his contributions to understanding the geological foundations and the earliest organisms of "lost continent" Zealandia and beyond, and for his role in maintaining and developing paleobiology expertise in New Zealand.

Victoria University Emeritus Professor Laurie Bauer received the Humanities Medal for his influential research in descriptive linguistics and Professor Cris Shore of the University of Auckland was awarded the Mason Durie Medal for his contributions to political anthropology and the study of organisations, governance and power.

Waikato University's Professor Ngahuia te Awekotuku - an acclaimed author, poet, critic and curator - received the Pou Aronui Award for her outstanding service to humanities-aronui over four decades.

Professor Tracey McIntosh, of the University of Auckland, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal for advancing our understanding of enduring social injustices that undermine Maori wellbeing.

Professor Murray Cox, Massey University, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal for his anthropological work to reconstruct processes of transformation and change in past societies using genetic data.

Professor Murray Cox, of Massey University, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal. Photo / File
Professor Murray Cox, of Massey University, was awarded the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal. Photo / File

His research has revealed a number of social features from the past such as marriage rules and farming expansion in Southeast Asia.

The MacDiarmid Medal was presented to Professor Peter Tyler, of Victoria University, for designing and synthesising a new raft of potential drugs that target the enzymes of many diseases.

This has since led to the development of a newly approved lymphoma drug, Mundesine, that is giving patients new hope.

Professor Stephen Henry, of the Auckland University of Technology, was awarded the Pickering Medal for his development and commercialisation of a surface-modification technology called Kode Technology, which showed huge promise for therapeutic use including fighting cancer, reducing surgical infections and healing wounds.

Professor Kim Pickering, of the University of Waikato, was awarded the Scott Medal for her development of composite materials that were more sustainable.

Many composite materials are not biodegradable or recyclable, but Pickering has used more sustainable materials as fibres for reinforcing, such as hemp, wood and harakeke or New Zealand flax.

Professor Ian Woodhead, of Lincoln Agritech, was awarded the Scott Medal for advancing electronic engineering, particularly in developing sensors for the agricultural and environmental sectors, including an electric fence performance sensor, and an electronic soil moisture sensor that allowed for more efficient irrigation systems.

Early career researchers honoured included Canterbury University's Associate Professor Geoff Rodgers, who received the Cooper Award; GNS Science's Dr Ian Hamling, who received the Hamilton Award; Auckland University's Dr Aroha Harris, who received the Royal Society Te Aparangi Early Career Researcher Award in Humanities; Otago University PhD student Ryan Thomas, who received the Hatherton Award; and Auckland University's Dr Danny Osborne, who was awarded the Royal Society Te Aparangi Early Career Research Award in Social Sciences.