Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

New Zealand: Sulfur and steam

with 38 comments

Geothermal Formation at Te Puia 6938

Here begins the fourth and penultimate installment of photographs from the great February trip to Aotearoa, known in English as New Zealand.

At Te Puia, one of the geothermal attractions in Rotorua, I photographed this formation on February 23rd. Yellow is generally an indication of sulfur, and steam is generally an indication of hot water.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 11, 2015 at 5:17 AM

38 Responses

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  1. I hope to see one of these some day…and even more, I hope that some day this is how we heat our dwellings. Well, without the sulfur.

    Steve Gingold

    June 11, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    • Yellowstone’s a good place to see this sort of thing without having to leave the U.S.A.

      As for using geothermal energy for heating, the article at


      notes: “Approximately seventy countries made direct use of a total of 270 PJ of geothermal heating in 2004. As of 2007, 28 GW of geothermal heating capacity is installed around the world, satisfying 0.07% of global primary energy consumption” Although I don’t know why the cited amount are from so long ago, I do know that PJ doesn’t mean pajamas but petajoules. Elsewhere on Wikipedia we learn that “the petajoule (PJ) is equal to one quadrillion (10 to the 15th power) joules. 210 PJ is equivalent to about 50 megatons of TNT. This is the amount of energy released by the Tsar Bomba, the largest man-made nuclear explosion ever.”

      Speaking of joules, in New Zealand I noticed on food packages that the energy in a portion of food there is given in kilojoules rather than calories. I kept meaning to look up the equivalency, but only now did I finally get around to doing it. I found that 100 calories equals approximately 420 kJ.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 11, 2015 at 7:06 AM

      • Ah, now I see why NZers are obese (almost 1 in 3 adults (aged 15 years and over) are (31%), a further 34% are overweight) http://www.health.govt.nz/nz-health-statistics/health-statistics-and-data-sets/obesity-data-and-stats We can’t help it when we have to eat 420 of something and you only have to eat a 100 of it. It’s just not fair. 😀 They should be called killerjoules.


        June 12, 2015 at 7:17 AM

        • “Killerjoules” is funny! I think you ought to suggest it to your Ministry of Health as part of an anti-obesity campaign. I’m serious: you’ve hit on a great advertising gimmick, and it would be a shame to let it go to waste. The word is especially good in NZ English, where I believe you don’t pronounce the r at the end of killer.

          You may be aware that obesity is as much a problem in the US as in NZ.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 12, 2015 at 7:44 AM

          • Hmmm….. I’d be a little shamefaced to tell them now having just made and consumed a very rich tarte tatin, which must have been loaded with killerjoules.


            June 12, 2015 at 11:01 PM

            • But the tarte tatin didn’t prove to be a killer (unless your ghost posted the comment).

              Steve Schwartzman

              June 13, 2015 at 6:57 AM

              • May take a while to seep into my arteries. But I am planning to balance out the extra fat and sugar with helpings of oatmeal porridge. So I guess I will be here for a few more posts yet.


                June 13, 2015 at 7:17 AM

        • As for the arithmetic, a New Zealander sees a higher number than an American does for the energy in an equal portion of food, so you might make the argument that the higher number is scarier and therefore more likely to act as a deterrent to eating too much. Even if true, it’s apparently not much of a deterrent, because while you cite a figure of 31% obesity over there, the site at


          gives a somewhat higher American obesity figure of 34.9%.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 12, 2015 at 9:09 AM

          • Despite all the labeling, I doubt very many people read them. I find them boring, time-consuming, and usually so tiny they bring tears to my ageing eyes.
            I think the food industry, health authorities and supermarkets need to get more imaginative. For example, something like a premium check out counter with great product rewards if your trolley contains 80% healthy food.


            June 12, 2015 at 10:59 PM

            • You might not want to invest the necessary time, but I’d be curious to see if you could convince the managers of a supermarket to try your experiment. One difficulty would be to decide which foods are healthy, whether individually or in combination with others. We’ve lived long enough to see the reputed values of certain foods go up and down. A food that one generation grows up eating, another is told to avoid—at least until some more time has passed and the food is once again accepted or even promoted.

              Steve Schwartzman

              June 13, 2015 at 6:54 AM

              • Deciding what is healthy and what is not would be a problem. Supermarkets are also beholden to big supermarket companies so they are not very flexible in their thinking. And then there are the societal attitudes which seem to favour controls and restrictions rather than nudging and incentives. I would love to have time to follow up my theories and ideas…….sigh.


                June 13, 2015 at 7:23 AM

                • This thread has reminded me of something. A couple of decades ago Eve and I visited Salt Lake City, and one evening we went into a supermarket to buy some food. Ahead of us in the checkout line were a mother and her teenage daughter. Both were obese, and every single item that they’d placed on the conveyor belt was cake, cookies, soda, potato chips, etc. For the sake especially of the daughter I thought maybe I should speak up and point out how unhealthy that was, but I ended up not saying anything.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  June 13, 2015 at 7:30 AM

                • Probably wise for the sake of your ears.


                  June 13, 2015 at 8:56 AM

                • Probably so, and yet a lost opportunity to have tried to do something good.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  June 13, 2015 at 4:23 PM

  2. And, if you have hot water and sulphur, you can go into the business of sulphur prilling. Have you ever noticed the huge pile of sulphur on the left just as you go into Galveston? I know they ship molten sulphur, but prilling takes place there, too.

    I always have enjoyed that sulphur pile. It’s one of the prettiest yellows in the world. It’s not quite as interesting as this, though.


    June 11, 2015 at 9:07 PM

    • That’s a new one for me, as I don’t recall ever encountering the word prill till now. Most of the sources I’ve looked in say that the origin of the word is unknown. Also unknown (to me) was that pile of sulfur in Galveston, which I’ll agree is pretty to look at because of its bright yellow.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 12, 2015 at 6:08 AM

      • Since the sulphur pellets that are produced very much resemble a pill, I wonder if “prill” is a made-up word within the industry. It might be a mispronunciation of “pill,” or perhaps a joining of “process” and “pill.”


        June 12, 2015 at 6:57 AM

        • And prill reminds me of the sulfa pills which were the pre-pencillin anti-biotic. We use sulphur prills in NZ but don’t seem to make them here. We do use geo-thermal energy.


          June 12, 2015 at 7:09 AM

          • And your comment reminds me that sulfa is the one drug I’ve been told I’m allergic to, even though I don’t remember being given the drug, or any reaction. When I was a young child, I came down with a serious case of pneumonia. The doctor (house call, black bag, lollipops) had me carried off to the hospital for an ice bath to reduce my fever and a dose of a new drug called penicillin. Clearly it worked, since I’m still here.


            June 12, 2015 at 7:17 AM

            • Thank goodness for penicillin. My Dad talks of the sulfa drugs and what a relief it was when penicillin became available. It will be a relief for us now when we find new sources of anti biotics.


              June 12, 2015 at 7:21 AM

              • One problem now is that because antibiotics are overprescribed for people and routinely used in animal feed, certain germs have developed resistance to some of the common drugs.

                Steve Schwartzman

                June 12, 2015 at 7:36 AM

        • Because the Oxford English Dictionary gives the earliest citation as 1778, an era when portmanteau words were pretty much unheard of, I don’t think process + pill is likely. The OED explains prill as a local term in Cornwall, so perhaps the word came from Celtic. The definition in the OED is: ‘the rich copper ore which remains after cobbing and separating the inferior pieces.’ I looked up cob and found it means ‘to break into small pieces, as ore, so as to sort out its better portions.’ Whether those small pieces looked to people like pills isn’t clear.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 12, 2015 at 7:30 AM

          • “Portmanteau.” That’s the word I couldn’t remember. And a quick look revealed that “prill” has been used in the coal industry. I found it in my book that records the history of my parents’ home town, in newspaper articles from the 30s. It was a coal mining town, and many of the immigrant families had come from England. Interesting.


            June 12, 2015 at 7:43 AM

            • And it’s interesting that prill seems to have followed your family and you around. I wonder if there’s a Schwartzman family word.

              Steve Schwartzman

              June 12, 2015 at 7:54 AM

  3. Nice photo. I must see what photos I have from Rotorua

    Raewyn's Photos

    June 12, 2015 at 1:40 AM

    • And if you don’t turn up any that you’re especially fond of, that’s a great incentive to go back. I wish I could drive over there in a few hours.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 12, 2015 at 6:09 AM

  4. I bet the smell was great! ;o)
    I believe there is a geothermal heating test ground in South Australia, somewhere…


    June 12, 2015 at 4:58 AM

    • You’re right about that, even as we take “great” with a bit of sarcasm. The smell of sulfur pervades the air even in the town of Rotorua itself, a couple of miles from Te Puia. It made me wonder if there are any long-term consequences for the area’s residents, who can’t avoid breathing in the sulfurous fumes.

      Here’s an article I found about geothermal energy in Australia:


      Steve Schwartzman

      June 12, 2015 at 6:16 AM

      • Rotorua, long term, at that distance I think it shouldn’t be that harmful I would think, more the smell if anything!
        Thanks for the Wiki link re Australian geothermal projects, most interesting. It mentions Origin Energy, who are my energy supplier, and they offer sustainable alternatives to the usual coal-powered electricity. Thanks for doing this searching for me! Cheers!


        June 13, 2015 at 5:17 AM

        • I can’t claim much credit, as the article turned up almost immediately in response to my search.

          As for the effects of sulfur in the air at a place like Rotorua, researchers could do (and perhaps have done) a study comparing the health of long-term residents there with the health of long-term residents in a non-sulfurous place to see if any significant differences in health problems show up.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 13, 2015 at 7:02 AM

          • Yes, of course, the health research could happen particularly if large numbers of people start complaining about ill effects.


            June 13, 2015 at 7:12 AM

  5. Fascinating!

    Birder's Journey

    June 14, 2015 at 9:55 AM

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