April 19, 2011

Lost Wonder of the World: Pink and White Travertine Terraces

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Pink terraces, near Rotorua, New Zealand. Painting of the terraces done prior to 1886. Image taken from here.

Last week’s geology word of the week was travertine. In response to the word of the week, a blog reader named Michael sent me a link to a wikipedia article about the spectacular– but lost– pink and white travertine terraces in New Zealand. I had never heard of these terraces before, but I clicked on the link to wikipedia and was immediately awestruck by paintings of these enormous travertine deposits. Intrigued, I began obsessively googling these travertines and found several more paintings and even a few grainy, late 1800s, black-and-white photographs. Often called the lost “Eighth Wonder of the World,” these travertines attracted many European tourists back in the 1800s, no easy feat in an age when reaching New Zealand required a long ship voyage.

As I googled, I became quite sad that these pink and white travertines are forever lost, buried underneath volcanic ash and mud when volcanic Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886. Somewhat ironically, the same volcano that created the travertine hotspring waters later buried them. This is probably not a unique or unusual occurrence; perhaps scientists can learn more about the formation and burial of volcano-associated travertines by studying the lost pink and white travertines in New Zealand.

I’ve decided that I need a time machine so that I can stand next to the enormous white travertine terraces and bathe in the warm waters next to the pink travertine terraces. As a travertine-studying geologist, I would also love to map and sample and learn about these impressively enormous travertines. Of course, there were no mass spectrometers back in the 1880s, so I’ll have to take my samples back to the present day so that I can analyze them properly. I’d also like to take fellow geobloggers Callan Bentley and Ron Schott with me in the time machine so that they can take some gigapan images of the beautiful travertines.

Yet, however impressive a gigapan image of the travertines might be, I have to admit that one of the reasons I find the white and pink travertines so intriguing is that they are lost forever. Regardless of the resolution or skill of the photographer, no modern photograph is likely to be as enchanting as the warm, almost glowing, paintings of the lost travertines. Furthermore, the grainy glimpses of the travertines in the old photographs tingle the senses, stirring up sensations of what the travertines must have been like in real life. Looking at the old photographs, I hear the trickling, bubbling, cascading travertine springwaters; smell the heavy, sultry steam; feel the soft carbonate between my toes; taste the faint sulfur in the air.

Pink terraces. Photograph by George Valentine, taken from here.

For many years, the pink and white terraces were thought to be completely lost, destroyed by the volcanic eruption. However, a team of scientists (including a geologist and some engineers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where I’m a student) recently re-discovered the lower portion of these travertine terraces hiding on the bottom of Lake Rotomahana. The scientists plan to carry out geophysical surveys to see if the rest of the terraces are destroyed or just buried underneath volcanic ash and mud.

Travertine hiding at the bottom of Lake Rotomahama. Photo by Dan Fornari, taken from WHOI website here.

Come to think of it, I’d still like to travel to Lake Rotomahama, even if the travertine terraces are no longer spectacularly displayed. The area looks beautiful, travertine terraces or not, and there’s bound to be some interesting volcanic rocks! If I ever travel to New Zealand, I’ll do my best to visit the region.

Here are a few more paintings and photographs of the pink and white travertines:

Another painting of the pink terraces. Image taken from here.
Late 1800s postage stamp. Image taken from here.
Painting of the white terraces. Image taken from here.
Another painting of the white terraces. Image taken from here.
Yet another painting of the white terraces. Image taken from here.
Hot water basins, white terraces. Picture taken from here.
Travertine pools & steam. Image taken from here.
More travertine pools & steam. Image taken from here.

You can view many more black and white photographs of the lost pink and white travertine terraces at the Auckland Art Gallery website.