The Waikato region contains almost 80 percent of New Zealand’s geothermal areas. These areas contain natural hazards such as hot springs, boiling mud pools and unstable ground.
Geothermal systems are places where the earth is hotter than surrounding areas, due to the presence of hot rock or magma near the earth’s surface. Almost all of New Zealand’s geothermal systems are hydrothermal systems, which means ground water from the surrounding area is heated by hot rocks and rises to the surface.
Tourism brings approximately two million people to geothermal attractions in the Waikato region each year. Most come to bathe in the thermally heated pools.
Geothermal surface features and processes include:
- hot springs and geysers
- boiling mud pools
- hot lakes
- warm streams
- sinter terraces
- geothermally altered and unstable ground
- hydrothermal eruptions
Geothermal hazards include:
- scalding hot water
- geyser eruptions
- amoebic meningitis
- geothermal chemicals in water
- boiling mud
- steam and other gases
- geothermally altered ground
- hydrothermal eruptions.
Springs are found throughout New Zealand where ground water comes to the surface. In geothermal areas, this water is hot from its contact with hot rocks and can include geothermal springs, seeps, lakes and streams. In some cases, the water is hot enough to scald the skin, resulting in serious burns and even death.
Some hot springs are known as geysers, and occasionally erupt a mixture of steam and boiling water into the air. Many hot springs erupt very infrequently and unexpectedly. Geothermal water contains silica, which sticks to glass surfaces such as spectacles (glasses), camera lenses, watch faces, and car windscreens causing permanent damage.
Hot lakes and springs can contain microscopic organisms (amoebas) that cause the disease amoebic meningitis. They're found in some geothermal water that has come in contact with soil, and are a danger if the water is not adequately chlorinated. You can get the disease if water containing the organism enters your nose (for example if you put your head under the water). From the nose, it quickly travels to and infects the brain. Amoebic meningitis can quickly kill a person, with symptoms including:
- severe and persistent headache
- sore throat
- nausea and vomiting
- high fever and sleepiness.
See a doctor immediately if you think you've got this disease.
Geothermal waters are thought to have healing properties, due to the minerals they contain. Minerals include arsenic and mercury, which are toxic, making geothermal water undrinkable. They can also get into the food chain, and high levels of mercury may build up in trout found in geothermal streams and lakes. Some geothermal water may be either very acidic or very alkaline, and may irritate the skin, corrode clothing or oxidise jewellery.
Like many other geothermal features, boiling mud pools are often unpredictable. A larger than normal eruption can suddenly occur, sending mud further than expected. The mud is boiling hot and will burn clothing and skin.
In some geothermal areas, although no water can be seen, steam will rise from holes in the ground called fumaroles. In some places the steam will be hot enough to burn you. The steam from fumaroles and hot springs may also drift across roads, preventing motorists from seeing oncoming traffic and other hazards.
Geothermal areas also produce toxic gases, including mercury and methane. Hydrogen sulphide is one of the major geothermal gases. It is heavier than air and will collect in confined spaces such as hollows, caves, and sometimes rooms. It may reach concentrations high enough to be fatal.
Rocks and soils that have been altered by geothermal activity may be at risk from subsidence and landslides. Geothermal ground may consist of a thin hard crust covering an underground cave, or tomo. The crust may give way under the weight of a person, sometimes into a scalding geothermal stream.
Geothermally altered ground can be prone to landslides as it can lose its underlying structure. One example of this is the Hipaua Cliffs beside State Highway 41 near Little Waihi at the southern end of Lake Taupo. These cliffs are unstable and prone to landslides, particularly after heavy rain.
Natural hydrothermal eruptions nearly always occur completely without warning. These eruptions can be violent enough to threaten people’s lives. Hydrothermal eruptions are caused by hot water rapidly changing to steam underground. This can occur as a result of:
- altering the amount of ground water in a geothermal area (for example, through land drainage)
- reducing the flow of heat from the area (for example, in sections of ground covered with roading material).
- Waikato Regional Council monitors geothermal sites. Find out more in our geothermal resources indicators.
- We assist in re-vegetating landslide areas where necessary.
- We are involved in planning issues relating to geothermal areas, including Hipaua Cliffs.
- We provide support, information and assistance to district councils.
- We are developing a map of specific hazard types and locations within the region’s geothermal areas.
Find out more about Geothermal Resources in the Waikato region.
If you are in a geothermal area, make sure you are aware of potential hazards and how to avoid them:
- Always check the temperature of the water before putting any part of your body in it. Take care not to fall in the water unless you are sure the temperature is safe.
- Keep your head above the water when bathing in geothermal pools. If you have severe flu-like symptoms within a week after visiting a hot pool, see a doctor immediately to rule out amoebic meningitis.
- Don’t drink geothermal water in case it contains the toxic minerals, arsenic and mercury.
- Be wary of eating trout caught in geothermal streams and lakes, as these fish may contain high levels of mercury.
- Keep a safe distance away from boiling mud pools, geysers and other areas which may suddenly erupt. Remember, a safe distance may be greater than you think, due to the unpredictable size and frequency of these geothermal features.
- Waikato Regional Council - Natural Hazards
- Waikato Regional Council - Civil Defence and Emergency Management
- Waikato Waikato Regional Council - Geothermal Resources
- Waikato Regional Council - Landslides
- Waikato Regional Council - Subsidence
- Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) New Zealand.
- The New Zealand GeoNet Project - real-time monitoring and data collection for rapid response and research into earthquake, volcano, landslide and tsunami hazards.
- University of Auckland - Geothermal Institute.
- New Zealand Geothermal Association.
- International Geothermal Association.