Focus on the essential following White Island eruption

A few days after the White Island eruption, the blame games, the speculation and the conversations that need to wait a bit longer yet, are getting underway. I have seen people commenting on matters such as whether tourists will be allowed back on the island; what this means for activities with an element of risk attached. I am seeing people – the ones commonly known as “armchair critics” – passing judgements that are in many ways, premature, ill informed and most probably detracting from the more immediate conversations.

New Zealand, the media and the public need to focus on the essential aspects:

  • The families of the dead, injured and missing
  • The dead and the injured
  • Retrieval of the missing from the island
  • The fact that White Island is still at an elevated alert, still capable of having another explosion

The families of the dead – what a horrible situation this must be for them. Irrespective of whether they are locals or not, knowing that their loved one/s are dead and that some of them might be still stuck on an unstable, venting volcano really is the stuff of nightmares. For them this will be a conflicting mass of emotions. Fear and anger, an insatiable appetite for answers, grief and pain all potentially happening in a horribly chaotic and random emotional spectacle.

How could this have happened in New Zealand? What were their loved ones doing in such a dangerous location? Why are the authorities not trying to get them out? Which hospital do I contact and how?

The dead will have suffered horrible injuries – a mixture of impact injuries from being struck by ballistics (rocks ranging from fist size up to small cars)and burns from being caught in what appears to have been a surge cloud generated by the explosion, and most likely a couple hundred degrees celsius. Identifying them will be a pain staking process and involve a different set of observations to those taken of the 15 March 2019 terror attack victims in Christchurch or victims of the Christchurch earthquake on 22 February 2011.

The Disaster Victim Identification team, who have the difficult, horrible and painstaking task of trying to identify the victims have assembled in Whakatane. This will be a brand new problem never to have happened in New Zealand before. With no prior experience of D.V.I. on victims of volcanic activity this is all potentially uncharted territory in terms how to go about the work. I wish them luck.

Right now White Island is still at an elevated level of unrest – at Alert Level 3 it is still experiencing minor unrest, and conditions exist which are considered favourable for another explosion.

Whilst this is the case there is no prospect for getting the remaining bodies off the island without putting those involved in undue danger. No doubt this will upset and possibly anger a few people, but safety is absolutely paramount – given the lack of warning in the minutes immediately prior to the eruption that one was imminent, were one to happen whilst the rescue team were on the island, they themselves could easily become casualties.

Later on the time will come for a bunch of conversations, which will need to include:

  • How we communicate natural hazard risk in New Zealand
  • Reform how we teach natural hazards in New Zealand schools – earthquakes aside New Zealanders are poorly informed about tsunami, volcanoes and a range of other hazards
  • How ready we are for a major volcanic eruption
  • At what point do activities become too risky and who takes responsibility for the risk

The time for these conversations is coming. They are important ones to have and when the time comes it needs to be an honest conversation. But that time is not now.


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 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?

Malthusian theory and New Zealand’s environment (2019 ed.)

This article was first published on 06 August 2017. The second edition of this article acknowledges some of the changes in understanding the potential for the collapse of civilization. It includes such factors as the onset of the Anthropocene which is the geologic epoch in which the impact of humans on the planet has become such that it will leave an imprint in the geologic record; reassessments of the rates of resource consumption.

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Malthusian theory relates to the idea that exponential population growth and consumption of resources whilst food production remains arithmetical at best eventually causes a Malthusian catastrophe – the decline of the worlds population to a somewhat more sustainable level.

In 1983 with concern over the exploitation of natural resources around the world, and fears of a neo-Malthusian outcome for an accelerating human population, the Brundtland Commission was formed. It had the task of examining the problem on a global scale and how the world might address an increasingly intricate mish mash of environmental issues, economics, societal pressures and politics. It struck a chord with the then Labour opposition in the New Zealand House of Representatives, angered as it was by the antipathy of the National Government to environmental issues here.

The 1991 Resource Management Act was written in partial response to the Brundtland Commission findings. It was also written in partial response to the fact that New Zealand had an obsolete environmental framework of laws that when put together were unwieldy. The Act replaced 69 other Acts and amended Acts, as well as 19 regulations and orders.

In terms of neo-Malthusian theory, the Resource Management Act on its own is not able to change the rate of resource consumption. The ecological footprint of the average New Zealander 10 years ago was large enough that if the whole world had our rate of resource consumption, all of planet Earth and 94% of an equivalent planet would be needed to sustain it. In other words, quite simply our rate of consumption is not sustainable by a large population.

In 2016 it was informally acknowledged by some geologists that the Holocene, the most recent geologic epoch had ended. It was superseded by the onset of the Anthropocene, thus tacitly acknowledging that the aforementioned consumption, in New Zealand and elsewhere had developed a strong global footprint. It is so strong that in the 1 minute of the geologic day, that humans have in existence, they have wiped out 50% or more of the total known species.

In third world countries adults tend to have larger families for socio-economic reasons including that in their senior years older people have family members who are able to support them when they can no longer work. Every human being needs fresh water to drink, to cook, to clean themselves and their clothes. About 800 million have no access to clean drinking water worldwide. The causes of this are numerous, but as drinking water is the most basic and fundamental way of hydrating a human, it is very difficult if not impossible to overestimate the importance of clean drinking water. A collapse of this resource through overuse, pollution and wastage would have immediate consequences. This is perhaps the most important part of understanding how a Malthusian collapse could occur.

No such problem exists in New Zealand with the growth of families. However clean water is becoming a bigger issue with each year due to the large amount used for dairy farming. It has degraded in many areas across the country and the rise of water bourne bugs has increased (see Hawkes Bay crisis in 2016). The advent of changes to hydrology and climatology caused by climate change (man made or otherwise)mean that these issues are going to become more acute with time as weather patterns change how we farm and how we use our fresh water resource. It will not be the cause of wars here, but in arid parts of the world, such as the Middle East water shortages might well cause confrontations involving individual nations military forces.

Another major problem is the rapidly increasing carbon level in the atmosphere. Since 1700 the output of carbon based gases has gone in one direction: UP. Last week it sat at 410 particles per million in the atmosphere, which is the highest it has been in about 350,000 years. The sources of it range from the consumption of fossil fuels, the burning of forests causing stored carbon to be released and the large scale use of materials such as concrete which releases about 7% of the worlds total man made carbon emissions.

Malthusian theory has been discredited by some theorists. Some say it is a theory that is too pessimistic. Others acknowledge the socio-economic causes of the theory, but say that there will be positive checks and balances that stop it from advancing, which I assume to mean further work on international treatises including the development of new ones and further advancing existing ones relating to the environment. However a trend away in the countries with the most economic, military and political influence from global co-operation against these challenges means even if all of the small and medium sized nations collaborated to share knowledge and technology, larger powers could undermine it.

So how discredited is Malthusian theory after all? And should we be worried in New Zealand?