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After 130 Years, Lost Natural Wonder May Have Been Rediscovered in New Zealand

It was believed the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed in an eruption, but research suggests they are buried under ash and mud

Charles Blomfield (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Anyone visiting New Zealand’s North Island before 1886 would have made the trek to Lake Rotomahana in the shadow of Mount Tarawera. They were going to view the Pink and White Terraces, one of the island nation’s greatest natural wonders. But that June, volcanic craters opened on the lake floor draining the water and smothering the surrounding area in ash. Eleanor Ainge Roy at The Guardian reports that it was believed that the beautiful staircase-like pools of water descending into the lake were destroyed or submerged. But now, a team of researchers believe they’ve found the location of the Terraces, and think they may still exist under mud and ash.

Ironically, despite its popularity and the British Empire’s penchant for surveying, the exact location of the terraces was not recorded before the eruption, Roy reports. But in 2010 research librarian Sascha Nolden discovered the field diaries of a 19th-century geologist named Ferdinand von Hochstetter, Hannah Martin at Stuff.co.nz reports. His notes contained the most precise location of the terraces yet found: raw data from an 1859 compass survey of Lake Rotomahana.

But the eruption and 131 years of time have greatly changed the lake and surrounding area. So after Nolden shared the findings with Bunn in 2016, the team spent eight weeks working with the compass data, eventually overlaying the historic outline of the lake over its modern incarnation.

It turns out that, if they are correct, the Pink and White Terraces are not under the lake but still on its shores, buried under tens of feet of ash and debris. The research appears in The Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. “We would have put in 2,500 hours of research in the last 12 months. We’re confident, to the best of our ability, we have identified the terrace locations,” Bunn tells Martin. “We’re closer than anyone has ever been in the last 130 years.”

Researchers have claimed they’ve discovered the terraces in the past. Surveyors from the state research institution GNS science scanned and mapped the lake between 2011 and 2014. They made a credible claim that they had rediscovered the terraces on the bottom of the lake, including compelling photos of what looks like part of the pink formation. Last year, GNS issued a report stating that while bits of the terraces remain, “the inescapable conclusion is that most of the Pink and White Terraces were destroyed during the eruption.”

But Bunn tells Roy that he has consulted with GNS and believes their work is based on inaccurate maps. “It is ironic GNS Science concluded the terraces were largely destroyed, just as we gained the first evidence the Pink and White Terrace locations survived,” Bunn and Nolden write in their paper.

Alice Guy at The New Zealand Herald reports that the researchers have gained permission from the iwi people, who control part of the area of the terrace, to perform an excavation at the site. For their part, the iwi believe that an excavation and eventually a complete uncovering of the Pink and White Terraces would be a huge boost to tourism in the area. If they still exist.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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