‘Eighth wonder of the world’ found under a New Zealand lake

Monday, February 14, 2011

WELLINGTON - New Zealand’s first tourist attraction, dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world” by international travellers in the late 19th century, has been rediscovered 125 years after it was buried by one of the biggest-ever volcanic eruptions.

New Zealand and US scientists said they found the Pink and White Terraces, 60 metres below Lake Rotomahana, 30 km from Rotorua in the heart of the North Island’s geothermal region.

The terraces, described at the time as a delicately-coloured fan-like staircase of rock covered with shades of pink and white silica rising like a giant wedding cake from the shores of the lake, disappeared when nearby Mount Tarawera blew up June 10, 1886.

The five-hour eruption split the 1,111-metre-high mountain in two, sending ash and lava over thousands of square kilometres of countryside, completely burying three villages and killing an estimated 153 people. Hundreds fled for their lives as smoke rose 10 km into the air.

Lake Rotomahana (”warm lake” in the Maori tongue) was emptied by the blast, only to be enlarged many times when it refilled, with hot springs bubbling up from up its shoreline and steam issuing from its banks, but with no sign of the largest silica terraces in the world.

Scientists from the state GNS Science organisation and America’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, said they found the part of the terraces while mapping the floor of the eight-square kilometre lake and investigating its geothermal system.

Sonar images taken by two autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) showed a pink-coloured, crescent-shaped, grimy staircase rising 1-2 metres from the lake floor for about 70 metres.

Project leader Cornel de Ronde, of GNS Science, said: “The first sonar image gave a hint of a terraced structure so we scanned the area twice more and we are now 95 per cent certain we are seeing the bottom two tiers of the Pink Terraces.”

He said there was no sign of the larger White Terraces, which were either destroyed during the eruption, or are still concealed under thick sediment that the side-scan sonar signal could not penetrate.

“This discovery puts to rest more than a century of speculation as to whether any part of the Pink and White Terraces survived the eruption,” de Ronde said. “Something that’s meant to be gone and that nobody’s seen in 125 years. Highlights in a science career don’t come any better than this.”

Historian Margaret McClure told the New Zealand Herald that the terraces and their cascading hot pools were the spark for tourism in the country, which now gets 2.5 million foreign visitors a year.

“Back then it was the tourism high point,” she said, attracting tourists from all over the world. “People said it was like fairyland, or Aladdin’s Cave.”

News of the find stunned local Maoris, whose ancestors lived near the terraces and died in the eruption.

Anaru Rangiheuea, an elder of Te Arawa tribe, told Wellington’s Dominion Post newspaper: “For me, it brings back a few tears and a few feelings of my people who were all buried and killed in the aftermath of that eruption.”

De Ronde said the investigation had revealed a “very, very big” geothermal system under the lake floor, giving rise to speculation that it could be developed for power generation like a nearby field at Wairakei.

But to the Maori people, areas where their ancestors died are “tapu” (taboo) and should not be disturbed. “Before we start moving into any economic consideration, we need to get the spiritual aspect of this properly addressed,” said Toby Curtis, chairman of Te Arawa Lakes Trust, which owns the lake floor under an agreement with the government.

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