New maps reveal Lake Rotorua's hidden depths

Media Release

25 January 2024

Rotorua BathyDRAFT v2

We are excited to share the latest and largest addition to our Rotorua Lakes map series – a highly detailed set of maps of the iconic Lake Rotorua.

Following on from the Lake Rotomahana (2020), Lake Rotoiti (2021), and Lake Tarawera (2022) map releases, this new addition has redefined our understanding of the region’s hidden depths.

The Lake Rotorua Map (2023) captures the bathymetry of the lake floor in unprecedented detail. Mapping includes a 2-meter grid of bathymetric data, reaching a maximum depth of 53.5 meters off Sulphur Point.

Rotorua FullMapv3 v2
The new map poster shows a detailed view of the lake floor bathymetry In Lake Rotorua at a scale of 1:17,500. Three smaller maps in the post detail free air gravity, total magnetic intensity and conductive heat-flow over the lake.

The bathymetric map reveals thousands of pockmarks that dot the lake floor, with some reaching an impressive 50 meters in diameter. These pockmarks are characteristic of gas discharge, the small craters pointing to where the release of gas bubbles have disturbed sedimentation on the lake floor.

Rotoura Pockmarksv3
The bathymetric map reveals thousands of pockmarks from gas discharge on the lakebed. The bathymetry also shows evidence of a sweeping paleo river (deeper blue) that existed before the lake's formation.

The bathymetric map also shows evidence for an ancient river that once meandered and carved the land offshore of Sulphur Point, winding its way to the west of Mokoia Island and curving to the northeast. The depiction of a river provides a tangible link to the landscape that predates the formation of Lake Rotorua, which is linked to when the Rotorua Caldera last subsided ~220,000 years ago. Geological evidence indicates Lake Rotorua is at least 65,000 years old and has been at its current level since 22,000 years ago.

Active hydrothermal system mapped for the first time

Close to the heart of Rotorua city, just offshore the iconic Sulphur Point, the map reveals an active underwater hydrothermal system characterised by numerous hydrothermal eruption craters. These craters, now venting hot water and gas, are clear evidence of the various inputs into the lake that affect its ecosystem. To better understand the geological setting of the lake and its sublacustrine hydrothermal system, GNS scientists have gone ‘below’ the surface of the lake by conducting gravity, magnetic and heat flow surveys.

This survey of Lake Rotorua has showcased the extent of hydrothermal activity in the lake and where it remains active today.

Dr. Cornel de Ronde Lead authour GNS Science
Rotoura SulphurPoint
Deep hydrothermal eruption craters (purple) have been mapped just offshore Sulphur Point, reaching a maximum depth of 53.5m.

Lead author Dr. Cornel de Ronde shares, "It's a prime example of a holistic approach to understanding our geothermal-hosted volcanic lakes, empowering us to better model the intricate workings of the Rotorua geothermal system that projects offshore from Sulphur Point."

RotoruaLake Mag HeatFlow v2
The high heat flow offshore Sulphur Point is illustrated in the conductive heat flow map (left), the magnetic intensity map (right) depicts how the hot water has demagnetised the rocks in the area. Together these maps provide good evidence that the area offshore Sulphur Point is an active hydrothermal system.

The high heat flow offshore Sulphur Point is illustrated in the conductive heat flow map (left), where hot water is rising up to the lake floor as shown by the deep red-brown colours which are encircled by a donut-shaped zone coloured dark blue where cold lake water is being drawn down beneath the lake floor.

The same story is depicted in the magnetic intensity map (right). That is, volcanic rocks typically contain the mineral magnetite which is highly magnetic and aligns itself to the earth’s magnetic field. However, hot water can transform magnetite into a mineral called pyrite, which has virtually no magnetic signal. This is shown by the indigo colours covering the hydrothermal eruption craters which relate to very low, or no magnetic intensity. Combined, both the magnetic intensity and the conductive heat flow datasets provide good evidence that the area offshore Sulphur Point is an active hydrothermal system and has been for some time. Significantly, this system is believed to be an extension of the onshore Rotorua geothermal system and opens a new chapter in our understanding of the complex interplay between terrestrial and lacustrine parts of the same geothermal system.

Surveys reveal subsurface secrets

The magnetic survey also shows how volcanic rocks to the southwest and southeast of the lake project under the shoreline (red colours). Moreover, the data also show a subtle magnetic anomaly in the center of the lake (orange), northwest of Mokoia Island. This anomaly coincides with a subtle heat flow anomaly, hinting at a possible igneous intrusion and another hydrothermal system nearby—exciting clues as to the hydrothermal processes at play beneath the lake floor.

Looking deeper into the region’s geology, our experts gained intriguing insights from conducting a gravity survey. In contrast to the bathymetric data, which shows the details of the lakefloor, the free air gravity dataset showcases the varying depths of the basement greywacke rocks underlying the lake. The mapping shows the basement rocks are at their shallowest in the southwestern part of the lake and progressively deepen towards the northeast, adding to our understanding on the structure of the basement below Rotorua caldera.

Rotorua FAGv3jpeg
The free air gravity dataset showcases the varying depths of the basement greywacke rocks underlying the lake, giving a better picture on the structure below the Rotorua caldera.

We are excited not only for how these new maps broaden our collective knowledge of region, but also celebrate the iconic landscape and will contribute to further study in the future.

Paul Scholes, Senior Environmental Scientist from Bay of Plenty Regional Council Toi Moana says, “The new maps are fundamental in assisting Bay of Plenty Regional Council and the wider community in managing the lake and its associated geothermal resources. The geographical and geological information added provides invaluable information to the taonga that are the Te Arawa Rotorua lakes and the series of maps being developed provides a great resource for our community.”

This work is the beginning of what we hope could be opportunities for Hapū and Iwi to consider

Haimona Te Nahu Te Arawa Lakes Trust

The mapping project has been an exemplar in cross-government collaboration, Commander Tim Hall, the Royal New Zealand Navy’s chief Hydrographer, says “This activity provided our hydrographic surveyors a valuable opportunity to gain experience in a freshwater environment and demonstrates the ability of different government agencies to collaborate effectively for a common purpose.”

  • Acknowledgements

    GNS Science wishes to acknowledge the iwi, hapū and whānau who are the mana whenua that connect with, and uphold the mana wai of, Lake Rotorua. For this project, GNS Science worked in partnership with Te Arawa Lakes Trust, owners of the lake beds, who have for some time explored the combination of Matauranga Māori and science to seek positive outcomes for the lakes.

    We would also like to thank the Royal New Zealand Navy who acquired the multi-beam and magnetic data for this project, and the Bay of Plenty regional council for their ongoing contributions and support of the Rotorua Lakes Map Series. This project was made possible through the Strategic Science Investment Fund (SSIF) from the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

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