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  • Aotearoa has world-famous lakes – for example, Lakes Taupō, Rotorua and Wakatipu – but there are a huge number tucked away that most of us probably don’t know about. Believe it or not, New Zealand has about 3,800 lakes larger than 1 hectare (the size of a rugby field)! Many of these lakes are in remote locations or out of sight on private land.

    A lake is defined as an area or basin filled with water and surrounded by land. This generic description may be accurate but it makes one lake sound much like another. In fact, lakes vary widely depending on their origins and catchment areas.

    Rights: Crown copyright, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Alta Tarn

    Alta Tarn is an alpine lake in the Otago region. It is surrounded by native tussock grasses.

    Image courtesy of Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future.

    Lake origins

    The unique geography of Aotearoa New Zealand is responsible for the incredible diversity of lakes in this country. Mountains, volcanoes and our extensive and complex coastlines have all had a part to play in creating the thousands of lakes throughout the motu.

    Te Waipounamu South Island is home to numerous glacial lakes. It is estimated that about a third of the island was once covered by ice. Ancient glaciers – huge masses of ice – slowly moved from the mountains to the lower lands. Ice is very effective at wearing away rock, and the glaciers forged large, steep valleys. The rocky debris pushed along by the front of some glaciers created natural dams and lakes formed in the basins and hollows. Glacial lakes like Takapō Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki contain glacial flour – extremely finely ground rock particles – which gives the lakes a turquoise colour. In recent times, glacial lakes have formed at the terminus (edge) of big glaciers in Aotearoa as the ice more rapidly melts. Tasman Lake began as small meltwater ponds in the 1970s, and it is now more than 7 km long.

    Rights: Crown copyright, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Takapō Lake Tekapo

    Takapō Lake Tekapo is a large, deep, glacier-fed lake on the northern edge of Te Manahuna Mackenzie Basin.

    Image courtesy of Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future.

    Te Ika-a-Māui North Island does not have glacial lakes but it does have volcanic lakes. Past eruptions in the Taupō Volcanic Zone and Auckland Volcanic Field have created enormous calderas, which filled with water to form lakes like Taupō and Rotorua. Other lakes like Pupuke Moana formed in dormant craters.

    Lakes are also formed by other natural processes:

    • Riverine lakes form in depressions on floodplains or when river channels move.
    • Dune lakes form by wind-blown sand deposits or within old sand dune systems.
    • Shoreline or coastal lakes form when a barrier bar of land (often called a spit) separates fresh or brackish water from the sea.
    • Peat lakes form when edged or surrounded by peat – the remains of wetland plant vegetation that slowly builds up over time.

    Lakes can also be formed by artificial means. These are usually created when rivers are dammed for power generation and water supply.

    Rights: Crown copyright, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

    Lake Wiritoa

    Lake Wiritoa is a coastal lake south of the Whanganui River. Its catchment area includes productive pastures and pine forests. The lake is also used for recreation.

    Image courtesy of Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future.

    Lakes are surrounded by a catchment

    Lakes are part of a wider ecosystem known as a catchment – the area that collects all the water that drains to the lake. Catchments are also known as watersheds or drainage basins.

    Natural physical, chemical and biological factors affect the condition of a lake. Physical factors include temperature, light and wind, while chemical factors include pH and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Biological factors include the bacteria, fungi, plants and animals that live in the lake and in the catchment area. Each of the factors is intertwined – for example, the water in a peat lake is mildly acidic and low in nutrients, so the plants and animals that live in the peat lake have adapted to these conditions.

    While natural events like drought, storms or even earthquakes affect lakes, humans have an overwhelming influence on catchment health. Land-use activities – such as the burning or removal of native vegetation to create agricultural or urban areas – influence the amount of water, sediments, nutrients and contaminants that enter a lake. Excess nutrients can upset the balance of plant growth, which in turn affects water clarity and oxygen levels.

    Coastal and lowland lakes in Aotearoa tend to be located in catchments containing high levels of agricultural, urban or other types of human development.

    Lakes and wellbeing

    Lakes and other freshwater environments are important to our identities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Lakes are important for recreation and good for our physical and mental wellbeing. In te ao Māori, the human and non-human worlds are indivisible. There are kinship relationships and responsibilities towards roto (lakes) and other natural features. Lakes are also important for mahinga kai.

    Conservation and restoration

    Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future notes that prior to its scientific study, environmental data existed for fewer than 5% of our 3,800 lakes, and these datasets typically covered less than 20–30 years. Land, Air, Water Aotearoa (LAWA) notes that only 127 of Aotearoa New Zealand’s lakes are regularly monitored for concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus, water clarity and algae levels. These measues are used to determine overall lake condition.

    Lake monitoring enables scientists to obtain an overview of the health of a lake and to look for changes to its state over time. It’s very important that iwi, local groups, regional councils and others have this knowledge for the ongoing conservation of healthy lake ecosystems. This knowledge can also inform lake restoration and help prioritise protection.

    Related content

    Waitī – freshwater environments looks at our connections to freshwater and how we are impacted by the degraded state of many of our freshwater environments.

    Remote sensing and water quality looks at the use of satellite images to help us keep an eye on the lakes.

    Consider the impacts humans have on freshwater systems with Humans and the water cycle.

    Activity ideas

    Exploring my local lake uses a combination of online resources to identify and perhaps get to know a lake in the local area. The activity can be expanded to include an in-depth inquiry of a lake, its catchment area, its current state of health and its history.

    Use the activity Interpreting observations from satellite images to view and discuss images from Earth observation satellites.

    Useful links

    Visit Land Information New Zealand for pūrākau that tell us how Rākaihautū created and named many of Te Waipounamu South Island lakes.

    Visit Lakes380 to find images and data of the many lakes sampled. The programme’s YouTube channel includes drone footage for some of the beautiful lakes we have in Aotearoa New Zealand.

    Visit this Lakes380 tool to explore the water quality of many of New Zealand’s lakes. The dataset comes from sampling by the Lakes380 team between 2018–2021.

    Visit Land, Air, Water Aotearoa for information about lake water quality.


    This resource has been developed in collaboration with Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future (C05X1707), Cawthron Institute and GNS Science.

    Rights: Crown Copyright, Cawthron Institute and GNS Science

    Lakes380 – Our lakes’ health: past, present, future

    Lakes380 is a national project to gain in-depth understanding of the current and historical health of lakes in Aotearoa New Zealand. The project was co-led by GNS Science and Cawthron Institute and funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (C05X1707;

      Published 9 February 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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