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Unravelling the mystery of the Pink and White Terraces

The mystery of whether New Zealand’s famous Pink and White Terraces — Te Otukapuarangi and Te Tarata — still exist and their exact whereabouts is one step closer to being solved. A first glimpse of the Pink Terraces in an expedition mounted by GNS Science has provided some initial answers.

Pink and White Terraces

The 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption buried the Terraces and several villages, killing at least 120 people. Image: Hocken Collection, University of Otago

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“GEOMAR and GNS Science have been long-time partners in exploring the oceans with deep submergence technology, including remotely operated vehicles and manned submersibles. The chance to explore the North Island’s lakes with the same technology is greatly expanding our understanding of New Zealand’s diverse subaqueous habitats and geological environments.”

Dr Mark Hannington, GEOMAR Helmholtz
Center for Ocean Research, Kiel, Germany

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The Terraces are an iconic part of New Zealand’s history since they were buried in the massive volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera more than 130 years ago. Until recently it was thought they had both been destroyed by the eruption. The level of Lake Rotomahana rose by at least 60 metres and its area increased by about five times, drowning all original landmarks. 

A documentary which screened on Prime TV in 2019 brought the mystery of the missing Pink Terraces to life. It showed our scientists deploying a remotely operated vehicle with a video camera into Lake Rotomahana. The camera filmed remnants of what are believed to be the Pink Terraces, about 70 metres below the surface.

This footage provided evidence that the Pink Terraces survived the eruption of 1886. The shape of the Terraces was instantly recognisable, despite silt and volcanic ash having eroded some of the distinctive terrace faces. 

Our previous work in Lake Rotomahana focused on what happened when you drowned what was once an on-land geothermal system, not whether the Terraces survived the eruption. This new evidence has prompted the need for further investigation.

It is hoped in the future that GNS Science will send a manned submersible below the surface of Lake Rotomahana to film the Pink Terraces up-close. This will give an idea of just how much of the Terraces survived and how vigorous the geothermal system is today. 

The aim of any future expedition would be to investigate both terrace sites because, although we believe the White Terraces were largely destroyed, getting ‘eyes on the ground’ will provide closure. 

The deep and lasting partnerships we have built with iwi, the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Germany and other partners have helped get us to this point.