The ugly reality facing Franz Josef


Franz Josef is a picturesque town in Westland District. It is nestled against the lower flank of the Southern Alps, with the Waiho River immediately to the south of the township. The town and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are named after the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, by explorer and geologist Julius von Haast.

But for all of its mighty charm nestled in temperate rainforest, Franz Josef is caught between a rock and a hard place. In terms of geological and geomorphological hazards it is in a location that in the long term, and increasingly likely in the short term, untenable. This article takes a look at the danger facing Franz Josef.

Why?

New Zealand straddles the boundary of two tectonic plates. To the west is the Indo-Australian Plate and to the east is the Pacific Plate. The onshore boundary is denoted by the Alpine Fault, a large fault line with a repose period of 300-350 years and a tendency to only move in magnitude 8.0+ earthquakes. The last one was about 1717AD.This onshore boundary is where about 25-30mm of tectonic uplift occur per annum as well as a similar amount of erosion, which means there is a continuous supply of sediment waiting to enter the catchments of the West Coast and east coast rivers.

This relentless uplift creates a lovely mountain range with steep hydrology – from the summit of Mt Cook to the Tasman Sea is about 45 kilometres. Being in the prevailing westerly belt of winds that sailors call the “Roaring Forties” because of the latitude, moist westerly air comes off the Tasman Sea and empties its moisture content – often over 200 millimetres and up to 500 millimetres in a day – on the West Coast side. Unsurprisingly flooding becomes a major problem.

How does this affect Franz Josef?

Immediately after one crosses the Waiho River heading south, the road takes a hard right turn. In the corner is a hotel that sits behind a substantial stop bank. On the other side of that stop bank is a riverbed that is rising at a rate of about 300mm each year. The rise is because a large volume of sediment is continually entering the Waiho catchment. This poses an increasing flood risk on a river where water levels start responding to heavy rain in less than an hour.

Franz Josef straddles the Alpine Fault, which runs right through the middle of the township. It crosses the Waiho River in the immediate vicinity of the Milton Hotel, which was flooded and suffered severe damage in a 2016 outbreak. Westland District Council published Plan Change 7 (P.C.7), which was meant to identify a zone through central Franz Josef, where there is high confidence of the Alpine Fault’s exact location, with a view to moving essential services and businesses out of the zone. However after considerable public opposition, P.C.7 was scrapped.

When?

Time is running out. The stop bank is about as tall as it can realistically get without massive supporting earth works. When the river tops it, it will start eroding away the stop bank and try to reclaim the riverbed that the stop bank was originally built over. This may claim several farms when it happens.

But there is a bigger problem. The Alpine Fault is now due for another earthquake. Should it rupture whilst Franz Josef is in its current location, the town will be subject to immediate and unmistakably violent shaking lasting up to 3 minutes. There will be between 8-10 metres lateral displacement to the right and up to 3 metres vertical displacement. Only the newest structures would probably be still standing.

Before then though, there may be another rain storm of similar magnitude to the one that occurred between 25-27 March. Should that happen, similar damage to what happened as a result of that storm should be expected. This has a high probability of including the bridge over the Waiho River, which was destroyed on Tuesday 26 March. The next rain fall event might not even need to be that big.

What is the solution?

In the absence of P.C. 7 existing, one option is to give up on the stop bank and let the Waiho River reclaim the riverbed. The problem here is that several farms and the air field would have to move. It also does not address the long term problem of the Alpine Fault. Perhaps the most feasible option is progressively relocate Franz Josef township’s population and amenities to neighbouring towns. Westland District Council and West Coast Regional Council have a duty of care to the residents and the tourists and other visitors to their District/Region to make sure that they are in no undue danger.

Where could the people go?

There are several nearby townships where the people of Franz Josef could be moved to. Ross and Whataroa are two, though these are quite near the Alpine Fault. Harihari is a third. All are on the same road, State Highway 6, as Franz Josef. It would be likely that West Coast Regional Council and Westland District Council would need to prepare a joint request for Government assistance purchasing land and working out appropriate resource management issues.

For their part the Government would most likely need to provide assistance. The West Coast is economically one of the poorer parts of New Zealand. It has a small rate payer base and this has a good chance, even if well planned and executed, of blowing whatever budget is set. And if the plan went ahead, it might have to be applied to Fox Glacier as well, as it too is very near the Alpine Fault.

 

 

Climate Strike: A New Zealander’s perspective


This was meant to publish on Saturday, but I concluded it was not appropriate in the wake of the terrorist attack in Christchurch to do so.

These are some thoughts on the Strike for Climate protests on Friday.

I am actually quite surprised that schools and principals are so aloof. Of all the people talking about children’s future, and having to prepare our youth for future challenges they do not seem to understand that this is a problem that those very children are going to have to face. Sure it is in school time, but is the media likely to pay nearly as much attention to a student strike outside of school time? NO.

My activist mates are understandably proud of what they see and hear today. For them it is the culmination of something that started when Greta Thunberg bravely stood before the politicians in Davos and told them what she thought. Except that it is not the culmination of something, rather a very impressive first Act. And from what I have seen it does seem quite well organized, which makes the offset of the schools and principals not being on board all the more stark.

The people who said that they will not achieve anything and should be in school are missing two key points. First, this was about making sure politicians understand that there is a real and abiding concern among students about what we are doing to the climate. Second, it is my generation that is having kids right now, some of whom would have been at protests today. When they have children 15-25 years from now it will be they who have to face whatever changes we have wrought on the planet through climate change.

There is a huge amount of disinformation out there. And the militant factions on both sides of the divide are actively contributing to it, which is just fuelling the division, encouraging the hardening of positions and the refusal to compromise. I respect the planners – present and former – caught in the middle, trying to make the best of two bitterly opposing groups and find some common ground.

For example, what do climate change activists envisage in terms of heating for houses – will it be L.P.G. gas cylinders like the one that powers the gas fire at my parents place, or will it be electricity. Having just said goodbye to my brothers in-laws who are starting the long journey back via Nelson to snow covered Minnesota, where the father-in-law is a builder, I am aware that the continental climate induces much harsher winters than what we get in maritime New Zealand.

But before they get back to Minnesota, they have to spend several hours in the air before they reach O’Hare airport in Chicago. Whilst in the air, the aircraft will be burning tons of aviation fuel. That raises another question – if carbon is as bad as it allegedly is, what sort of fuel is going to be the aviation fuel of the future? As New Zealanders, we love to travel a lot and many of us want to go places in the future, but planes cannot fly if they do not have fuel.

Unfortunately Greenpeace, Green Party N.I.M.B.Y.ism means that a lot of the best counter solutions are not able to proceed because people don’t want the infrastructure necessary to support those solutions in their backyard. People want wind power, but don’t like birds getting mangled by the turbine blades or there is noise or visual pollution. You cannot have it both ways and just as with the economic model that I am going to mention shortly, something has to give.

But also there are more fundamental problems. I am not saying capitalism is the answer, because it is not – greed and sustainability simply do not exist in the same sentence. The economic model is going to have to change. A lot of the deforestation and other environmentally destructive activities are in pursuit of two things: raw minerals or energy sources. The massive loss of biodiversity is caused by habitats being wiped out on a scale much larger than we can sustain.

Cows belching and the large scale burning of fossil fuels – oh, here we go some of you will be saying – make up significant sources of our gas emissions in New Zealand. Robert Muldoon might have been ahead of his time when he tried to get a biofuel plant established in Taranaki, but I think a more modest project could probably be established in south Auckland using material from the waste stream.

But I do not see either of the major political parties in New Zealand being terribly keen to enact changes that will make a meaningful impact. Labour and National are both beholden to the neoliberal economic model that has dominated New Zealand economics the last 40 years and seem quite happy tip toeing around the edges of major problems, such as waste recycling.

So what does all of this boil down to? The climate strike is really about a more sustainable future for the generations that are striking. They were not expecting to achieve that today, but any politician who thinks that this can be swept under the carpet has obviously not looked at the topography of the carpet in recent times. The impact on planet Earth is too much to ignore, and helps to contribute to the rise of the word “ANTHROPOCENE”. My geologically oriented mates might be the jury that is out on whether the Anthropocene is a thing, but to me the evidence is there and the real argument is when did the Anthropocene start?

Time to burn plastic?


The debate over whether to burn plastic in New Zealand has come to the surface again. The debate, whilst not new, comes back to light as the country tries to grapple with a plastic overload.

There are several potential reasons for doing so. It is a very cost effective way to dispose of waste and there are numerous instances of overseas countries, particularly in Scandinavia doing so. Another reason is that waste can be burnt to create energy, thereby potentially supplying heat to heat water as is done in Denmark or generate electricity.

In the first instance, no, I do not believe we should be burning plastic. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Plastics may release dioxins, which are potentially cancer causing into the atmosphere
  2. Plastics have recyclable uses such as being used as bitumen on roads, according to trials carried out in India
  3. Reducing the plastic in our lives should come down to the question of what purposes we really need it for and making all that we deem necessary to have recyclable

But just for a couple of minutes, let us suppose we did decide burning plastics was necessary. New Zealand has strong rules under the Resource Management Act 1991 around the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere.

A couple of potential issues exist around what kind of incinerator could be used. The first one concerns the use of incinerators. There are only three high powered incinerators (those that can burn material at temperatures above 800°C in New Zealand and the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (2004) forbids the construction of any more. Lower powered incinerators are known to exist, but would they be powerful enough to do the job?

The same N.E.S.A.Q. set limits on Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as these are significant contributors to air pollution. They have a range of potential health effects in large quantities.

The second concerns our international obligations including, but not limited to climate change. Would we be in breach of those obligations by having incinerators simply burning up plastic waste?

Various attempts to get such plans underway have been canned in the past. In one such case Olivine, , was attempting to recommission the mothballed Meremere coal fired power station as a waste to energy plant that among other waste, would have used plastics. That was in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is a combination of government policy, but also the fact that in the last few years the range of plastics that can be recycled in New Zealand has been significantly increased. When the recycling triangle scheme where a triangle with a number between 1-6 signifying its suitability for recycling first appeared on plastics, the range was quite poor with only Classes 1-2 being eligible – 3,4,5,6 had to wait. It has improved now – only to be replaced by a laissez faire attitude to recycling .

New Zealand needs to address these issues before it can make a decision on whether or not to burn plastic.

 

Some coastal suburbs in doubt


Concerns have been raised about the future of two coastal suburbs in Christchurch. Southshore and South New Brighton suffered heavily in the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. But their recovery is being hampered by the sunken land that both sit on and its increased vulnerability to storms.

Perhaps the primary source of concern is how these communities will cope with rising sea levels, and increasingly volatile weather systems. New Brighton and South Shore have never been very high above sea level and occupy a narrow spit less than a kilometre wide, which has sand dunes on the coastal side and an estuarine environment on the other. And in recent years their vulnerability to the effects of flooding from storm surge have been shown.

Earthquakes are a second cause of concern. As a result of ground motion particularly on 04 September 2010 and 22 February 2011, land around the Avon-Heathcote estuary, the lower reaches of both rivers and the Brighton Spit slumped in some cases by up to 50 centimetres. Since then flooding can happen with brief rain or a large tide.

But there is a wider problem. Christchurch is not the only part of New Zealand with low lying housing. Coastal bays in Wellington, estuarine parts of Auckland and low lying land that might be protected by sea walls or sand dunes, but be at or close to sea level is also at risk. Good examples of the potential damage can be found in the winter storms of June 2013, and more recently Cyclones Fehi and Gita, which caused widespread storm damage along the West Coast and around Nelson

Whilst there are provisions in the Resource Management Act and statutory planning tools such as the Regional Coastal Policy Statements, councils have to trade off between environmental pressures and developmental pressures.

The last two years in New Zealand have been particularly stormy. During the summer of 2016-17, the Southern Oscillation Index was neutral, meaning weather came from all corners of the compass. For example a weather bomb – a rapidly deepening system of short duration, but quite intense in terms of rain and wind – passed over in January, dropping 300mm of rain in Arthurs Pass in a day in mid-January 2017. In June and July 2017 big southerly storms lashed Canterbury and large parts of the South Island’s east coast causing widespread flooding, and extensive coastal erosion. In February 2018, as mentioned earlier, two tropical cyclones passed over New Zealand just three weeks apart.

All of these storms caused millions of dollars in damage. In the case of Cyclones Fehi and Gita, they raised concerns about how coastal communities in less densely populated regions might fare in the long term. A low population region such as the West Coast does not have the financial resources to draw on from its ratepayer base that a region such as Canterbury or Auckland have. This makes coastal measures expensive, but have to be weighed up against moving and disrupting communities.

Even if the world went carbon neutral today, so much has been ejected that it would take several years or even decades for the effects of going carbon neutral to begin to be recognized. Even the 2ºC rise in temperature is limited to strictly that – some are saying even limiting global temperatures to a 1.5ºC rise might be too little too late – the subsequently increased volatility of our climate, going from intense droughts to severe rainstorm events; extreme cold to extreme heat would not be stoppable in our lifetime.

Another planning concern is the amount of sediment reaching the coast. Some parts of the world have a shortage of sand. This can at least in part be traced to rivers, which are the natural means of transport for sediment from the mountains to the sea, being dammed extensively. This thereby traps the sediment and little or no provision gets made for the need of long shore drift, which works the sediment along the coast enabling the replenishing of sand beaches after big storms. A failure to restore the balance somewhat would mean that coastal regions that are vulnerable would be more and more exposed to the sea, meaning properties would have to be abandoned.

Moving forward, one has to wonder what sort of future other coastal communities face. Maybe planners have a solution, but for the time being, councils and insurers alike are being faced with hard questions that no one really knows the answer to. And time might not be on their side.

Farmers burying toxic waste on their land?


It appears that large numbers of farmers may be inappropriately burying or otherwise disposing of toxic waste on their land.

According to a representative from Greater Wellington Regional Council, that the disposal of substances on farms is a permitted activity. The representative admitted that councils lack the resources to monitor permitted activities. That raises a question about the suitability of the “permitted” classification for such an activity. Six such classifications exist under the Resource Management Act:

  • Permitted. No resource consent or other permission required from a consenting authority
  • Controlled. An applicant must notify the council of a proposed activity, but the council must grant permission
  • Restricted discretionary. A consenting council shall restrict the exercising of its discretion to those aspects stated if it grants resource consent.
  • Discretionary. No restriction on the council’s ability to use its discretion.
  • Non-Complying. A council may only grant consent if it is satisfied that the effects of proposed activities will be minor or the activity is not contrary to the policies and objectives of any relevant plan.
  • Prohibited. A resource consent or other permission cannot sought, and nor can it be granted.

Due to the toxic nature of a lot of the items being dumped, I would have thought that it would have a discretionary or restricted discretionary classification as an activity.

I am surprised that after 25 years of the Resource Management Act that no specific requirements to minimise waste and purposefully encourage the management of waste to adhere to Section 5 of the Act. I am also surprised that despite growing public awareness of the problem, councils do not seem to be giving the dumping of waste and waste as a general issue the level of attention that one would expect in a country that prides itself on being clean and green.

It is media coverage like this that encourages me to not only push on with my petition to reduce waste in New Zealand but also to encourage a conversation to start about our overall sustainability. In a year where nations and their civil populations seem to be waking up to the damage that plastic causes it is high time we took our own waste management seriously.