The way ahead

The economy and the environment could both use some help, but both can flourish. NIWA scientists talk about managing the issues for the sake of our kids.

Australia’s mineral wealth, underpinning a rigorous spirit, has earned it the moniker 'the lucky country'.

New Zealand now has reason to challenge that label. It’s turning out that our natural resources are worth far more than we ever thought during the 150 years in which we had comfortably ridden on the sheep’s back.

In its 2010 report, The Changing Wealth of Nations, the World Bank ranked New Zealand the eighth-wealthiest country in the world for natural capital per capita (above the 'lucky country', Australia), and the first for renewable natural capital. That endowment, say analysts, is our economic leverage, perhaps salvation.

The Changing Wealth of Nations 

We’re learning ways to produce more foods from our green pastures. And now new, extensive mineral deposits are being discovered; from iron sand to oil and gas.

New Zealand’s combination of agriculture, minerals, and innovative work ethic might well justify it being called 'the luckiest country'.

We’re ambitious in our intentions. For example, the Government’s Economic Growth Agenda calls for export revenues to constitute 40 per cent of GDP by 2025, including a near-trebling of the real value of agri-food exports to $58 billion. Such ambition begs the question: How do we extract maximum benefit from our natural capital without destroying it?

This new found realisation of natural wealth has brought us to a fork in the national development road – and the route we take is a decision that science can help with.

The first step is to establish what we want to protect, and what we want to use. And that is a job for science. You can’t determine what’s important, rare, vulnerable, or worthwhile using, until you first know how much of it you have, the state of its health, the part it plays in a healthy ecosystem and its sensitivity to whatever you have in mind for it. That sort of knowledge requires intensive research, monitoring and sophisticated modelling. This is the sort of work NIWA is doing every day.

One government response to the fork in the development road is the National Science Challenges initiative. This has created a shortlist of intractable issues, some environmental, which need priority attention. The $133.5 million programme will “seek answers to questions of national significance by focusing scientific effort and providing additional focus on key areas”.  Commitment to science, and research and development, is likely to be the factor that makes New Zealand the 'luckiest country'. NIWA’s research shows how science is helping New Zealand make its own luck out of these challenges.

Find out more about the National Science Challenges 

Public disquiet

There are signs that the public is unsure about granting “a social licence to operate” to those proposing new ways of using our natural capital.

In April 2012, the Christchurch City Council unanimously declared the city a fracking-free zone. Three other councils joined calls for a national moratorium, backed by community boards throughout the country.

Later that year, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras abandoned a seismic survey for oil and gas-bearing substrates off East Cape after being harried by a protest flotilla launched by Greenpeace and Te Whānau ā Apanui.

Similarly, plans to increase water take from rivers, or build dams and races for storage and irrigation schemes, have run into opposition.

The issue of declining quality of freshwater has been highlighted by multimillion-dollar clean-ups of Lakes Taupo and Rotorua, and the Waikato River.

Those planning to use resources in new ways want to work out how to do so without irreparable damage, and to monitor the effects. They also need this information to show the public that resource transformation can happen without putting the environment into overdraft.

Discussions on resource use and conservation will need to be conducted on a stage not rickety with emotion and baseless claims, but solid with scientific information.

Science can be an expert witness in the discussion; a critical part in gaining approval for new projects from the New Zealand public.

That’s where NIWA comes in; working out the size and type of resources, working out the environment connected to them, and establishing how to use one without harming the other.

Troubled waters

One of the most significant environmental items on the Challenges to-do list is water: enhancing primary sector production and productivity, while maintaining and improving land and water quality.

“If you’re going to intensify land use, you must account for environmental impact,” says Dr Clive Howard-Williams, NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Freshwater and Estuaries.

Howard-Williams says there are two big challenges with water in this country. “One is quantity: whether we’ve got enough water to allow for both the economic growth agenda and the maintenance of the environment.”

The other is quality. “The real need is to count and assess cumulative impacts. One discharge into water may look minor on its own, so someone gets a permit. However, others may have added discharges the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that.”

The only way to address it, says Howard-Williams is “to set limits”. Before you can draw any lines in the water, he says, you need to understand thresholds – tipping points past which freshwater ecosystems may not be able to function properly. Only then can you craft sound scientific advice into policy.

“The environment needs good water quality to maintain ecosystem values, but it also needs appropriate quantities of water. Minimum flows are a very crude way of setting limits.

“You can enable water allocation while keeping the environmental integrity of the river by taking account of natural fluctuations. For example, rivers need floods at certain times of the year to flush sediments and algae off river-beds, or to allow for fish migration. We’re looking at precisely that now with our research programme into better water allocation systems.”

Regulators have flinched from the unpopular business of capping allocations or discharges, “but the Government’s National Policy Statement last year was one of the best things that’s happened to freshwater management in many decades. It said: ‘The only way we’re going to stop this is to set limits beyond which you can’t go,’ and that was quite a brave step.”

Meanwhile, NIWA is developing various technologies to minimise the impact of agriculture on waterways – like riparian strip work, constructed wetlands, floating wetlands, or advanced pond systems to recover energy from wastewater. Howard-Williams says NIWA’s forecasting (see 'Forewarned is forearmed', in this issue) allows for “precision farming, where you apply fertilisers or irrigation or sprays only at the appropriate time – dictated by accurate forecasts – and not just before it starts to rain. All these technologies are helping farmers improve productivity while maintaining or improving water quality."

Read 'Forewarned is forearmed'

Clean or otherwise, will there be enough water to go round? “Healthy dairy pastures need about 1200mm of rain a year,” says Howard-Williams, “but some of the most potentially productive landscapes are the flat lands along the east coast of the South Island and east coast of the North Island, where you’re down to something like 300mm a year.” Desalination’s out of the question, he says, so “the only other way to do it is to store water, so you can release it when you need it most".

But storage usually requires altering flows or damming rivers. That’s where water modelling comes in. “NIWA has developed a tool to help regional councils work out the best place to site a dam. This means water can get to where it’s needed for production, while minimising impacts on downstream flows.”

Clever demand management is critical: “You can improve water use efficiency through precision farming. So it can take 800mm to irrigate a pasture rather than 1200mm.

We’re helping farmers do that by more accurate weather forecasting, and improved measurement of soil moisture and evaporation to better understand the water balance.”

Looking after our water resource, says Howard-Williams, “is a no-brainer. The cost of a degraded environment is a cost New Zealanders don’t want to pay.”

“We have very high environmental expectations relative to many other countries. But let’s not get tied up with measuring ourselves against others. We need to decide for ourselves as a nation what constitutes good water quality, and just go for it.”

Warming to the task

The National Science Challenges has identified resilience to natural disasters as a key issue. Dr David Wratt is NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Climate.

“It’s pretty clear that the climate is going to change over the coming decades and century,” he says. “The changes will include more extremes, shifts in rainfall patterns, increases in sea level.”

That leaves a raft of sectors vulnerable, he says, unless they can use science to help with planning. Farmers will need help dealing with more – and more severe – droughts, uncertain water supply, shifts in pasture growth and animal welfare problems.

We’re also facing more flood risk, says Wratt. “Quite a lot of our infrastructure is built on flood plains – houses and factories, roads and bridges, those sorts of things.” Similarly, billions of dollars’ worth of coastal development, he says, are threatened by rising sea levels.

As a scientist, Wratt’s priority is to remain “aware of what’s important to people when they’re making climate-sensitive decisions and future investments. And making sure we’ve got the right research underway, so we can provide the right information to the right people. We don’t make the decisions, we aim to give people good information, so they can better manage their lives and their businesses.”

Nay-sayers and detractors, says Wratt, “tend to downplay the fact that scientists have been working hard on understanding the climate, understanding what’s been happening, based on measurements, and projecting what may happen in the future. I really hope that good information will be made use of to inform decisions, rather than being disputed in the Environment Court and judicial reviews.”

It’s important to remember, he stresses, that climate change is not all about impacts. “It’s also important to think about opportunities.” Shifting trends in temperature, rainfall and frost could offer farmers and growers new crops and ventures. “That’s partly a matter of keeping good track of what’s going on with the climate, and being flexible.”

Foresters might benefit from what’s known as the CO2 fertilisation effect, where greater CO2 concentrations boost plant growth. But warmer conditions might also encourage forest pests to spread and multiply.

On the other hand, more rain, rather than snow, in winter might see some hydro catchments get a boost.

Like Howard-Williams, Wratt thinks our future will depend on how we manage water “and providing the best information we can from climate studies – spatial and temporal variability in rainfall, evaporation and drought".

He stresses the value of sharing information across disciplines and organisations. “Climate information alone doesn’t lead to developmental change: it demands an entire chain of people who can interpret and understand the social and economic issues that might arise from different ways of doing things.”

He makes a research priority of getting “appropriate, systematic measurements, so we can determine what’s happening (with the climate), and to help us understand local and regional variability. That requires a dense measurement network, which costs money. So I’d really like to see good collaboration across agencies and organisations, working together to collect, share and make use of climate data.”

Addressing climate change requires a good understanding of the climate system, right across the atmosphere, oceans, water, ice, biosphere and society.

Hazards ahead

On Tuesday, 22 February 2011, at 12:51 pm, Nature sent us a jarring reminder that there’s a limit to our luck; we’ve chosen to live in one of the most geologically jittery regions on Earth.

Murray Poulter is NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Atmosphere and Natural Hazards. He says that, if we’re to mitigate the impacts – not just from earthquakes, but flooding, wind, storm surge, slips and heavy snowfall – we need to understand why such shocks happen where they do, how large they might be and how often they occur. We need to better understand their social and economic impact. “With that fundamental understanding of individual hazard processes,” he says, “we can estimate the risk and impact across the range of hazards we face in New Zealand.”

The other side of the coin is how we respond to risks. “With good risk information, we can make smart planning decisions, rather than reacting after hazardous events. That means getting resources and mitigation in place – measures like stopbanks or earthquake-strengthened buildings.”

“If you base mitigation on a given level of risk”, he says, “there will still be large events that exceed your chosen mitigation standard. So what’s your option then? Forecast those events, and then get out of harm’s way.” This applies particularly, he says, to weather, flood and coastal storm The way ahead surge hazards, where more accurate forecasts can provide advance warning, model the impacts in real time and guide our emergency response.

“The key thing is understanding risk – being able to estimate it – and then communicating that risk. New Zealanders will tell you that earthquakes are their biggest worry, but, in fact, earthquakes are infrequent – albeit very high impact – events, whereas flooding is very frequent. If you examine the costs over the longer term, both hazards cost us about the same.”

The Christchurch rebuild offers a valuable opportunity to think about our future, and how we want it to look and work. “If you were going to design New Zealand again, would you end up with what we’ve got? From a hazard point of view, our biggest city sits on an active volcanic field, our capital is on a major fault line, half our second-biggest city is built on a swamp. And look at our secondary cities: a lot of them lie at river mouths or on flood plains.”

Sunken treasure

By some estimates, the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) holds gas, oil and mineral reserves worth billions, though exploration to date has been piecemeal.

The Government has encouraged oil and gas companies to step up that exploration. But there is still some public scepticism in the wake of the Rena grounding off Tauranga, and the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Some believe that environmental controls are insufficient to protect the waters and wildlife regarded as a national touchstone.

We need more information, says NIWA’s Dr Rob Murdoch, General Manager, Research, about the mineral and biodiversity wealth of our EEZ, so we can realise the revenues from one, without harming the assets of the other.

The Government agrees. The National Science Challenges list says it is crucial to understand “how we can exploit our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints”.

Murdoch says the New Zealand public is unlikely to grant a “licence to operate” if we can’t demonstrate more rigour in our understanding of the environment.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about the extensive sedimentary basins in our EEZ,” says Murdoch. “We need to provide critical resource data to attract prospective explorers, and to provide information that allows Government to make sound licensing decisions and enact effective regulatory policy.”

The other consideration, Murdoch says, is that we need to develop measurement tools and predictive models to assess how mining and other activities will affect oceanic ecosystems and other resource users, and to assess the risks of deepsea drilling and hydraulic fracturing. “That’s a necessary precursor to gaining public approval and awarding mining licences.”

“The Government has been clear that it wants ocean resources developed,” says Dr Barb Hayden, NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Coasts and Oceans. “The challenge is to come up with processes that make sure any development is environmentally sound.”

Oil and gas and minerals aren’t the only treasures found in our marine estate: commercial, customary and recreational fisheries sustain thousands of New Zealanders, and a fantastically rich biodiversity delivers all manner of ecosystem services (see 'A deeper understanding', in this issue).

Read 'A deeper understanding'

As our uses of the ocean have proliferated, so have the conflicts, leaving policymakers and resource managers struggling to reconcile them: where lies the balance between exploitation and protection, between a healthy ocean and a healthy economy?

Hayden says the regulatory landscape of the EEZ is almost as tortuous as its topography. So far, we’ve managed the uses of our ocean, sector by sector: “We manage aquaculture over here, fisheries over there, and mining over there, each under separate legislation.” And, while we are working on an oceans research strategy, we don’t yet have a national oceans policy.

“We haven’t managed multiple activities in one space. But it’s essential that we start to do that, because the values of the commercial fishery could be quite different from those of you and me, for instance. But they’re all important to the collective values we share as New Zealanders. It’s a difficult area, but we’re happy to be working in it.”

Something else we need to get to grips with, she says, is the concert of consequences environmental managers call cumulative effects. We might understand the effects, for instance, of a fish farm on the benthos of a sheltered bay. We can place conditions on a consent that will mitigate them, but what if that bay also receives runoff from a forest, a motorway or a dairy farm? Or what if it’s being colonised by an invasive pest? Over time, such cumulative effects, she says, can deal a heftier blow than a single event like the Rena grounding.

Hayden says that people are overly focused on catastrophes. “In the grand scheme of things, oil spills can be relatively short-lived, whereas cumulative impacts can go on for decades or longer.”

All of which highlights, she says, a need for collaboration, and “stronger partnerships between managers, policymakers, scientists and users of the marine environment. We need to be doing this in tandem".

To that end, NIWA has launched a programme to develop “a consultative process that brings in the values and aspirations of Māori, the general public, fishers – any users of the marine estate”, says Hayden, “in a way that allows for the concurrent management of all uses, because we must be good stewards of our environment".

A growing appetite

Dr Rosie Hurst, NIWA’s Chief Scientist, Fisheries, is concerned that “feeding a growing population is going to become an increasingly serious challenge.” Success will depend on two things: “the sustainability of the food production we have now, and whether or not we can increase that production. New Zealand’s done a lot to manage its fisheries sustainably, and we have an excellent international reputation for our Quota Management System.”

“While we monitor some fisheries very well”, she says,“we don’t have a good understanding of how key species fit into their ecosystems, or the impact of fisheries and other users of the marine environment on ecosystems and their productivity".

In particular, it is important to be able to determine when fisheries are likely to have adverse effects on other species (such as seabirds and marine mammals) and seabed communities. Add other uses of our marine estate, like seabed mining, she says, “and it becomes very hard to assess what the cumulative effects might be".

The way ahead, says Hurst, lies in “ecosystem-based approaches to management". But deepsea fisheries research is both expensive and difficult. “So we need to rely on computer-generated ecosystem models. The quality of these models depends on the quality and quantity of the information we have, and the assumptions we need to make. It’s difficult enough to build a single-species fisheries stock assessment model, let alone model an entire ecosystem, so it’s a big challenge.”

Like Howard-Williams, Hurst believes the important decisions lie with ordinary New Zealanders. “Society needs to determine how things are managed. It’s the job of science to inform that determination.”

The impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems also have her attention. “Localised warming in some parts of the world has already caused changes in fish distributions and productivity. There are likely to be winners and losers, but making predictions is extremely challenging.”

Even as it warms, the sea is also absorbing more and more carbon dioxide, shifting its pH balance. “Ocean acidification is expected to be pronounced in the Southern Ocean. How this might affect primary productivity – and therefore fisheries production – we don’t yet know.”

Again, it’s not surprising to find the 'Life in a changing ocean' as a priority research topic on the Government’s list of Science Challenges.