A volcanic wake up call for New Zealand

In January 1991 I visited White Island volcano in the Bay of Plenty with my parents. It was an awesome yet surreal place, completely hostile to everything except a colony of birds living on its flanks and broken scrub in which they had made their homes. It helped to fuel a long standing interest in volcanoes and a desire to work on them. But nearly 29 years later in an eruption in broad daylight it has shown New Zealand and the world why volcanoes command respect.

The eruption at 1411 hours New Zealand time 09 December 2019 was tiny by global standards. It only lasted a few minutes, but in that time it has killed one person, injured 23 and left another 27 unaccounted for.

So, how did one small eruption that would probably have been forgotten by many by the end of the year except for the fact that it was lethal, manage to cause such grief? And how can this be prevented from happening again?

White Island is a volcano with a crater lake covering the main vent. Between the water and the magma below there is a layer of sediment that changes in chemical composition to almost crystallize and bound the debris covering the vent together. If the magma is at depth then fumarole activity will be lesser because the sealed vent provides less routes for the vapours to escape. As it rises the fumarole activity increases. Directly above the magma a mass of volcanic vapours rises towards the surface and as it pushes its way through the fluid saturated debris steam pressure builds. When the overhead mixture can no longer sustain the pressure it explodes.

Unfortunately eruptions through lakes tend to happen with quite short notice – only a few minutes in some cases, though the warning signs might be overt: seismic activity, a disturbance in the crater lake and increased venting. In the case of White Island where the boat/helicopter is some several hundred metres from the vent, even if they ran back, they might not make it before the explosion.

The explosion in a confined space can be devastating. A cloud of superheated rocks, mud and steam will expand at several hundred metres per second in all directions. If conditions permit a ground surge of falling debris will move across the crater floor and immediate surrounds at possibly over 100km/h. Whilst there are instances of people surviving such conditions, their injuries are likely to be acute. Based on the available footage of yesterday, that is what appears to have happened.

White Island, like New Zealand’s other volcanoes is monitored 24 hours a day 7 days a week by GeoNet, which has a network of seismometers, camera’s and other instruments in place. They provide real time seismic, photographic and other coverage of the volcanoes. Yesterday, just before the eruption, the GeoNet camera on White Island’s flank took an image that showed people on the crater floor perhaps 50-100 metres from the crater rim. The seismometer showed elevated activity that had been continuing for about three weeks was still happening. Last week a GeoNet statement said that it had entered a phase where an eruption should be considered possible.

Duty volcanologist for Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (G.N.S.), which operate GeoNet, Brad Scott, has said that it is up to individual tour groups whether or not they operate from one day to the next. They operate through various alert levels. Hard hats, fully enclosed shoes and breathing masks are compulsory.

Over the next few days as the authorities piece together what happened, New Zealand will learn the story of how White Island caught authorities, tourist operators and locals alike off guard. But for now we focus on the survivors, those that are missing and those that were injured.


Government expanding single use plastics ban

Polystyrene, the soft white material surrounding our larger electronics when we get them from the retailer is something we have a love/hate affair with. Great for protecting sensitive goods from knocks, light weight and widely used. But at the same time a waste management nightmare, which breaks up easily that is causing massive environmental grief.

I support the banning of polystyrene. Anyone who has torn apart a piece of it will know how a mass of bound little soft white balls can shred into thousands of them instantly. Weightless, non-biodegradable for hundreds of years in the natural environment and in New Zealand alone each year many thousands of kilogrammes of polystyrene is manufactured and subsequently sent to land fills or discarded. It can be found all over the place – streams, on beaches, roads, and elsewhere, transported by the wind from loosely sealed bins or skips.

Now polystyrene food containers are among the targets in the next wave of single use plastics set to be banned by the Government. They join a host of others including

Although this is not as yet targeting the polystyrene that is used to transport electronics such as desktops, television screens, printers and so forth, it is a good start.

I also support the other initiatives being announced by the Government, which include:

  • A National Plastics Action Plan
  • Improving national plastics data collection
  • Measures to mitigate environmental and health effects of plastic
  • Innovation of products using plastic waste

Back in December 2017 China announced it was going to stop accepting other nations rubbish from 01 January 2018. Whilst some were concerned that it would be taken negatively, I was pleased because I want nations to take responsibility for their own rubbish, including New Zealand. Why should China take our rubbish when 1.5 billion people create unknown tonnage of it each day, leaving authorities with a waste problem – never mind the associated environmental problems – that I doubt most people in the west could honestly comprehend?

But with it came challenges – and opportunities – which I now attempt to discuss.

New Zealand is one of the biggest consumers per head of population in the world of resources. And although responsibly it seeks to improve the state of our waste control, it is noted by tourists and locals alike that not nearly enough is being done.  The challenges come in part from needing to dial back what we create, which will mean necessary changes in consumption patterns. It will mean a more regulated consumer environment. Changing the consumption habits of a life time can be challenging, but New Zealand will have to try if it is to seriously reduce the waste out put being created. It will also create questions about what to do with existing waste, especially since a storm on the West Coast in March showed how easily an old refuse tip can be destroyed by a flooding river, and the consequences of old rubbish in the environment.

But there are opportunities – some controversial and others quite logical. They include the potential for waste to energy plants, which I personally like the idea of if the problem of fly ash can be successfully dealt with. One proposal already attempted was for a W.t.E. plant on the West Coast which would generate enough power to make the province self sufficient. But these have generated controversy, not least because they do not actually encourage less waste creation – though it was pointed out to me that existing waste could be removed from landfills and carted away to these stations and when empty the landfill is rehabilitated.

Perhaps more logically plastic bottles could be swapped out for glass bottles as we used to have for milk and fizzy drinks. How easily this could be reinstated would depend on how companies like Fonterra and Coca Cola react – would they come on board? Or would in the case of Coca Cola, they look to aluminium as an alternative to plastic? Which creates its own opportunities and issues.

Dealing with N.I.M.B.Y.ism in New Zealand

N.I.M.B.Y.ism officially has two different categories of people who use the term:

  1. The business and industrial sector in times of exasperation in attempting to classify the people who are opposed to a development in their neighbourhood
  2. The local community activists who perhaps for reasons of social conscience or a general concern about the likely environmental impacts likely to be caused by a proposed project such as a waste-to-energy plant

However I imagine there to be more than just these two groups, and I describe later in this article other types of N.I.M.B.Y.ists. I also wonder how accurate these classifications are – yes business and industry might be exasperated with opposition to a major project that has aesthetically, environmentally and socially displeasing characteristics, but it is what is driving that opposition that we should be looking at.

In New Zealand the Resource Management Act requires that applicants of a proposed activity seek approval from the neighbouring property owners. A large dam creating a reservoir and generating power is obviously going to affect numerous land owners, need numerous resource consents. The consents will also need in depth Assessments of Environmental Effects filled out, engineering reports into the suitability of the land on which the dam will be built and so forth. There will be recreationalist’s concerned about the impact on fishing and boating; environmentalists will be concerned about the trapping of sediment behind the dam and the flooding of a valley when the lake fills up; communities will be affected in that property prices might change and the character of communities nearby will be altered. No one can blame them for opposing something like this in their backyard.

At the other end  of the scale construction of a three bedroom house will most likely only need one resource consent – maybe two if its fence is non compliant with the local plan. A house being built is significantly less likely to attract the attention of local activists. It will probably relative unobtrusive. The scale of the earthworks and environmental effects will be able to be summarised in a few pages as well as the mitigatory measures that will be taken.

Sometimes the people who fall in the N.I.M.B.Y. classifications have credible points. Maybe the project is not suited to its proposed location. Maybe the communities and the environment really will suffer. These N.I.M.B.Y.ists might not be so much opposed to the activity as they just recognize that the proposal is poorly thought out.

But there are some who will probably protest for the sake of protesting. These are what I call dead end N.I.M.B.Y.ists. These are not necessarily the ones that engage with the intention of helping a cause or because they see some significant injustice. In the same way one makes no progress going down a dead end street, one should not expect to make progress in dealing with a dead end N.I.M.B.Y.ist. They are there to shut down a proposed activity or project at any cost. No amount of reasoning, no number of fact or truths will persuade them that ones proposed activity is somehow beneficial.

If one thinks about the various aspects of a major infrastructure project like a wind turbine installation, it is possible that a fourth group exists. One might call these the environmental/ecological N.I.M.B.Y.ists. They generally approve of the type of project, but because certain bird life live near the wind turbines it is not appropriate there. The problem then becomes a questions of where is appropriate.

But is it possible that there are business or industrial N.I.M.B.Y.ists? These could be those who object to activities, that they perceive as not being business friendly, such as the conservation estate.

So, what is a N.I.M.B.Y. to you?

Short term pain but long term gain with Reserve Bank announcement

On Thursday Reserve Bank Governor Alan Orr revealed what might be the biggest decisions in decades. Governor Orr, in an attempt to strengthen the banking sectors ability to handle a major financial meltdown, announced plans to make banks hold more of their profits relative to the amount of lending that they do.

Yes there is pain. But as the saying goes, you cannot have gain without the pain. So, putting that in context here are the pains (and later I will mention the gains):

  • Substantial increases in mortgage rates – possibly up to $300-400 a week if you believe A.N.Z.
  • Lending to farmers has decreased significantly on the double digit figures of a few years ago, but with an average mortgage sitting at $3.833 million for farms of all types, even a minor change would hurt
  • The total hit to banks may cost around $20 billion

No one I am sure wants New Zealand to have a spasm of collapsing financial institutions like we did in the Global Financial Crisis where 32 separate institutions imploded, wiping out billions of dollars in bank deposits and taxpayer monies. And we certainly don’t want the non-accountability that went with several of the imploding institutions where the people in charge were found to have properties worth several million dollars and living the societal high life made from ill gotten gains. The massive bangs of Fannie May, the Lehman Bros and Freddie Mac going under might not have been felt in New Zealand but anyone following the news would have certainly noticed.

And I do not think New Zealand society is prepared to be radical like Iceland, which which decided to jail its bad bankers and was the first E.U. nation to have a growing economy again post G.F.C.

However I believe that the short term pain will in the longer term be off set by gain. New Zealanders will have more confidence in the banking sector that when financial strife attacks, the banks will be able to cope. The ghosts of the 2007-2009 Global Financial Crisis will be consigned to the history books. Whereas other countries are having or have had painful reconciliation’s with their banking sectors, New Zealand and Australia did quite well – we had none of the following:

  • Britain and Ireland went through painful austerity periods
  • The United States had to introduce the Frank and Dodd legislation to prevent a repeat of 2007-09, which various Republicans have promised to repeal
  • Greece, France, Spain and other E.U. nations suffered considerable internal strife over domestic fiscal policy

And the gains that I mentioned?

  • Implosions such as South Canterbury Finance, which took out $1.6 billion of deposits, long term investments and other monies will be less likely – the little man who lost his entire savings overnight in the 2007-09 crisis has less to fear
  • Banks credit ratings will hopefully be more secure
  • Small banks such as T.S.B., S.B.S. and Co-operative Bank will potentially gain customers
  • Ultimately there will be more confidence that money will be better in a bank than under the pillow

That is the theory. The reality going forward is quite possibly different in a country without a flash record of understanding the need for a robust banking framework. The possibility that voters will vote for a party that promises to kick the can down the road for another few years is there. So is the possibility that parties beholden to the banks will vote to undermine, or worse still, completely dial the progress back to where we are today.

New Zealand needs to stand by Samoa

Following the printing by the Otago Daily Times of a highly offensive Garrick Tremain cartoon, I think it is necessary to reiterate the importance of showing our support for Samoa. The historical links between New Zealand and Samoa help to provide back ground to this. With Samoa dealing with a major measles outbreak, hopefully some historic context will enable people outside of Samoa to understand New Zealand’s chequered pass in administering the islands.

Our treatment of Samoa and Samoans following World War 1 was an abomination. A ship carrying soldiers returning from Europe asked if it could dock in Samoa in late 1918 or early 1919. The consequences of it being allowed to dock reverberate through Samoan history to this day.

Word of an influenza outbreak had reached the small Pacific Island in 1918, but few had any obvious understanding of how it works. Influenza was a foreign thing. It was the result of the environment that the troops fighting in World War 1 had to bear – inhospitable conditions year round for four years including terrain so blasted no one knew where they were. As the troops boarded ships home in all directions from Europe, the combination of close living quarters, and medical treatment – or lack off – would have severely tested the health of any human who put up with it. When it docked in Apia for a few days it enabled the spread of influenza throughout a population not known to have had had any past outside connections to such an emergency. The ship’s crew had not presented signs of influenza, despite two crew being sent ashore in Auckland, but by the time it reached Apia many of them had it.

Samoa would suffer horribly. 7542 were killed in the outbreak. And for that one can only say how sorry we were to see the influenza pandemic back. Yes, it is true that Samoa has had lower vaccination rates than normal. Yes it is true that a botched round left two infants dead. These were some of the contributing factors in determining how the nature of the incident will affect their work.

New Zealand announcing that it stands with Samoa is barely a start. Whilst we have made welcome efforts to help Samoa fight the measles, M.M.R. is something that can be fully immunised against and thus we can afford to give them substantially more assistance in fully eradicating a disease that was thought to have been removed as of 1978.