While kayaking, hiking or cruising around the islands, visitors can appreciate the efforts made by the New Zealand government to preserve and promote their eco-tourist trade. One of the most prominent preservation efforts is being in Rotorua, a city about three hours outside of Auckland. Geysers, mud pools and steam vents are researched, preserved and used to educate visitors about the Maori people and the geothermic activity that shaped their way of life.
Geysers shoot steam and water into the air splattering onlookers with droplets. The geysers, found in North Island’s Rotorua, are four of the remaining six in New Zealand. They are created by the volcanic activity from shifting tectonic plates under the country, which allow the earth’s core heat to warm pockets of water past the boiling point. The same type of volcanic activity happens under Yellowstone National Park.
Rotorua is centered in the basin of a caldera, also known as a super volcano, one of eight in the world. Thousands of years ago, the volcano erupted, scattering the debris that now makes up the plateau surrounding Rotorua.
Under the earth’s surface, the steam and hot water that create the geysers and hot springs power 17 percent of the country’s renewable energy. Other types of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, help to make the 40 percent of total energy according to the Energy Efficient and Conservation Authority (EECA).
New Zealand leads the world in developing renewable energy technology. Visitors to the country can expect to see signs posted encouraging green thinking from street corners to their hotel rooms.
In Rotorua, visitors can tour Whakarewarewa, the Māori living village. The village is still inhabited by people today; it is also a popular destination for tourists. They’ll learn from geothermal and Māori cultural experts about the geothermal system that made life possible for New Zealand’s earliest settlers. Visitors can learn about the four types of geothermal surface expressions: primary, mixed geothermal fluid, mixed steam and steam fed.
While walking around the village, tourists may notice the ground is warm. This is from the hot steam trapped underneath and the volcanic activity close to the surface. Additionally, the smell of sulfur permeates the area, funneling up through the steam vents that create the geothermal surface features.
“Rotorua is beautiful place,” said Sasha Kaalman, a visitor from England. “The smell near the hot pools wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. Even though it was still bad, it was worth seeing. I would definitely go back.”
New Zealand is known for its outdoor activities in a landscape that exists outside the ravages of time.
Story By Kaylin Bowen
Photos By Mary Kathryn Carpenter
Eco-Tourism's Prominent Surface Feature
The geothermal systems are a by-product of large-scale volcanic activity. As two tectonic plates under New Zealand shift toward each other by roughly forty millimeters (4 centimeters) a year, the earth’s heat is released into underground water reservoirs rich in minerals. The waters can reach temperatures well beyond boiling.
“Currently, we are helping the rest of the world develop sustainable energy by sharing our technical knowledge,” said Rosalind Archer, Head of the Department of Engineering Science at the University of Auckland and the Director of the Geothermal Institute. “We are about to release an open-source modeling code to detect pressure underground.”
New Zealand scientists tap those underground reservoirs for their electric potential. Water or steam is drawn up from the ground to spin turbines that produce electricity. The cooled water is then carefully pumped back into the earth. If cool water is put back too close to the source, it will impact the geothermal plant’s output. The water must be returned back underground to avoid contaminating the lakes and rivers on the surface with hard minerals.
Depleting the reservoirs can cause sections of earth that are supported by pockets of hot steam and water to sink. Some can drop as far as eight meters (26 feet). It will also kill off the geysers and hot pools.
The Geothermal Institute and researchers at the University of Auckland, as well as government departments, carefully monitor the use of geothermal energy for overuse and sustainability. Remote cameras, human samplers and mechanical monitors keep track of the amount of water being drawn and replaced as well as the internal temperature of the pools.
In addition to providing energy and entertainment to the Kiwis and their guests, the waters are home to microorganisms that are completely unique to New Zealand. They have adapted to live in the mineral-heavy, superheated waters. Scientists are currently studying the bacteria to understand their adaptive properties.
Additionally, enterprising botany enthusiasts can see a type of clubmoss that is millions of years old and only grows in a specific type of microclimate that extends five meters (16 feet) around a hot pool near Rotorua.
While the geothermal systems are some of the most obvious ways that New Zealand taps into nature’s bounty to maintain its environment, other agencies are striving to promote clean living, green thinking and continued sustainability. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) works with businesses to create sustainable practices without sacrificing profit.
“We know we don’t have all the answers, but we want to enable companies to do more than they could on their own,” said Chris Thurston, Account Manager at EECA. “We believe we are here to make New Zealand a better place.”
The EECA has partnered with several well-known businesses that travelers and locals encounter frequently, such as Air New Zealand, which recently won the national award for sustainability practices. Additionally, Auckland International Airport and the kiwifruit industry have partnered with the EECA to reduce their environmental impact.
Auckland International Airport is undergoing an expansion as the tourism trade increases the number of planes flying in and out of the country. In an effort to save resources, EECA and the airport have partnered to cut the airport’s energy use by 20 percent.
Leading kiwifruit refrigeration systems have been overhauled to be more effective and energy conservative. These refrigeration systems hold the kiwifruit in cold storage between being harvested and sold in stores. The fuzzy brown fruits that sit on U.S. shopping mart shelves could come from one of these improved, commercial-grade refrigerators.
Wind farms can be seen prominently on the South Island and solar panels are frequent additions sprinkled across the island. Additionally, travelers with a keen eye will notice posted information about ways to lower their carbon footprint while staying in New Zealand.
In addition to the geysers, the deep aqua, emerald green and rippling mauve pools are easily recognizable primary geothermal surface features. The azure pools of water glimmer like jewels when their surface’s wafting steam exposes their crystalline brilliance to onlookers.
Dotted here and there among the geysers and clear pools are their mixed steam and fluid cousins, the mud pools. They bubble from steam leaking up from underground reservoirs. The dark grey mud, so much like primordial ooze, rises into a pulsing pimple-like bubble before popping with a wet, gloopy noise, emitting hot steam and a rancid stink. This mud is harvested and sold around Rotorua for facemasks in gift shops around New Zealand.
Once, between 200 and 300 geysers could be found in New Zealand, but the overexploitation of the geothermal systems has dried up surface features across the country. Exploitations range from the traditional Māori practices of harvesting the waters for baths, cooking and heating their homes, to modern geothermal power plants that use the earth’s bounty to generate electricity.
“There’s a cause and a consequence to everything we do,” said Brad Scott, a Volcano Information Specialist at GNS Science. “The cost of large scale exploitation is the destruction of surface features.”
Scott suggests imagining a water hose attached to a sprinkler. When the hose is sound, the sprinkler runs at full blast. Begin poking holes in the hose or “exploiting,” and the sprinkler loses pressure before finally stopping altogether. The remnants of overexploitation can be seen a short walk from the glory of the geysers where a cracked field of silica terraces lies barren. The grey rock is broken by the skeletons of past pools and geysers, explains Scott.
The silica terraces and cliffs are created from deposits of minerals in the water coming from underground, which harden into silica shelves. Scott described the shelves as a history of the area’s lifetime; decades of layered algae and sediment have been pressed between the silica.
“GNS scientists are like the CSI, and the silica cliffs are our clues,” Scott elaborated.
The Māori people, who fled from volcanic eruptions, settled into the crater of the super volcano in 1325. They adapted customs and survival techniques to fit the new, harsh location. They developed cooking practices that used steam vents to roast meats and vegetables. Some hardier veggies could be lowered directly into the surface features to cook in netted, mesh bags.
They learned to use the hot waters for baths, healing and easing skin maladies. In modern culture, spas are open in Rotorua that offer medicinal hot pool packages for anyone with an afternoon to spare.
Ancient Traditions to Modern Day Remedies
"GNS scientists are like the CSI, and the silica cliffs are our clues."
"The underground systems are a puzzle we can’t see and feel from the surface."
In the late 1980s, the Rotorua geothermal system began to suffer from human abuse. Scott explains that the springs were drying and geysers weren’t erupting. A bore-hole closure program was instituted, which sealed previously used drill holes and banned future drilling. The program has led to the world’s first recovery of surface features. Pools and vents that haven’t been seen in decades have resurfaced after a 25-year break from exploitation.
Rotorua’s system is classified as protected, while Wairakei is developed, according to the New Zealand Resource Management Act. The Wairakei system, located nine kilometers (5 miles) north of Taupo on the North Island, is home to the largest geothermal plant in New Zealand. It has been used to create power for 50 years.
As New Zealand continues to move toward electric vehicles and energy-efficient practices, the need for sustainable energy, such as geothermal plants, will remain high.
“The underground systems are a puzzle we can’t see and feel from the surface,” said Archer. “We have to think creatively to both use and preserve the system's integrity.”
Visitors to Rotorua can schedule a guided tour of the living village to learn about the Māori cultural experience, as well as the geothermal surface features. The cost of attendance starts at $35 (U.S. $25) per adult.