Once upon a time – on June 10, 1886, to be more precise – there was a rather powerful volcanic eruption at Lake Rotomahana on New Zealand's North Island. Pressurized magma rose from the depths to encounter the lake, and due to an interesting quirk of physics that’s not yet properly understood, it set off a chain reaction of massive explosions and lava flows.
By the end of the eruption, it is estimated that it released as much energy as the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba. It also happened to destroy a rather beautiful formation named the Pink and White Terraces, sometimes referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Known as the “fountain of the clouded sky” (pink) and the “tattooed rock” (white), they were originally formed by the slow accumulation of silica-rich deposits from some rather ancient geothermal springs, but the fiery events of 1886 was thought to have annihilated them. The search for their wreckage has been conducted ever since, and a 2016 paper in the Journal of New Zealand Studies claims to have made a breakthrough.
It’s all thanks to a diary by the 19th-century geologist Dr Ferdinand von Hochstetter. Recovered in 2010 from a museum collection, it has recently been perused through by a research librarian and a historian, and they have come to the conclusion that it accurately describes the location of the Pink and White Terraces in unprecedented detail.
Based on field notes – and not an actual map – the pair of researchers mathematically narrowed down where Hochstetter must have been standing when he described the Terraces all those years ago.
According to their analysis, the Terraces were split into three parts, and were not found in Lake Rotomahana, but elsewhere near other geothermal springs. They argue that the descriptions used by British colonialists back then were somewhat fanciful and not particularly accurate.
Arguing that their margin of error is now down to a measly 35 meters (115 feet), they have called on the authorities to initiate a geological expedition to help confirm whether or not they are right. If they are, it will have solved one of the world’s most mysterious scientific enigmas.
Plenty of the indigenous Maori that were present during the 1886 eruption sequence were either killed in the chaos or fled the scene, which means that the fate of the Terraces have been a mystery for the past 131 years waiting to be conclusively solved.
Back in 2011, geological experts exploring the bottom of Lake Rotomahana had found massive fragments of the Pink Terraces. Based on their work, the team concluded that they were never properly destroyed; instead, the post-eruption explosion craters dramatically increased the size of the lake, which then rapidly filled with rainwater, ultimately submerging the Terraces beneath the waves.
However, five years later, the same team conducted sonar surveys of the lake, which suggested that this was wrong and that the explosive energy of the eruption was enough to comprehensively take out both the Pink and White Terraces.
The Hochstetter-based study argues that there was some destruction, but as the Terraces were further inland than volcanologists previously thought, they were largely unscathed by the 1886 eruptions. The Pink Terrace fragment found in 2011 beneath Lake Rotomahana “might have slid down the main Rotomahana crater wall and rested on a ledge for 125 years, before being fortuitously found by a submersible,” the pair conclude in their paper.
Are they right? Have volcanologists searching for the answers got it wrong, or has this particular pair of detectives come up short? Watch this space, dear readers!