A world-renowned Kiwi scientist has won volcanology's highest honour.

Professor Bruce Houghton - described by one colleague as "a giant of volcanology" - has received the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior's Thorarinsson Medal.

It is awarded only once every four years.

Today the science director of the National Disaster Preparedness Training Centre at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Auckland-born Houghton earlier spent 25 years in Taupo and Rotorua as part of GNS Science and its former entity, the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.

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There, he was part of a team responsible for volcanic hazards research and played a leading role in the science response to the 1995-1996 Ruapehu eruptions.

"He was one of the guys who put New Zealand volcanology on the map," said University of Auckland volcanologist Professor Shane Cronin, whose own PhD was supervised by Houghton.

"He developed a series of techniques to understand the textures of different erupted volcanic rocks, and he used those textures to understand the dynamics of past eruptions."

Over recent years, Houghton had become the world's foremost expert on explosive basaltic eruptions - a type of eruption that once occurred at Tarawera.

"A giant of volcanology, Bruce has tackled 'big' problems in geology with innovative approaches and technologies, and is truly a scientist of outstanding distinction," stated University of Tasmania's Dr Rebecca Carey in her nomination letter.

"His research has not only generated a wealth of new scientific understanding, but also critical pioneering advances in long-standing cornerstone concepts in volcanology."

In New Zealand and in the US, Houghton pioneered research across the interface of fundamental volcanological science and hazards, social and behavioural science, contributing to the design of training courses for scientists, first responders and emergency managers in both countries.

Professor Bruce Houghton at Askja, a caldera volcano in the central highlands of Iceland. Photo / Supplied
Professor Bruce Houghton at Askja, a caldera volcano in the central highlands of Iceland. Photo / Supplied

Houghton and his predecessor at University of Hawaii, George Walker, are among the only nine volcanologists to date given the Thorarinsson Medal, an award named for the noted Icelandic geologist and volcanologist Sigurdur Thorarinsson.

"I was delighted and surprised by the award," Houghton said.

"All my research is collaborative and most of my publications have been first-authored by my students or post-docs, and these are not the type of statistics that usually lead to such awards.

"I was particularly pleased because all three of my mentors in volcanology are in the list of eight prior winners of the medal; it is quite humbling to be joining them."