Sea-change for Scientists

The recent public announcement that Mt Taranaki (Egmont) is expected to erupt within the next 50 years marks a sea-change for New Zealand’s geological scientists.

The announcement was made following a symposium at Massey University in Palmerston North where scientists discussed the effects that such an eruption would have on infrastructure and the economy. Mark Bebbington, of the Institute of Information Sciences and Technology at Massey’s Palmerston North campus, was specific in making the projection based on the volcano’s eruptive history.

The announcement came amidst continuing advertising campaigns by Civil Defence and EQC encouraging New Zealanders to make preparations to survive a natural disaster.

The change to openly discussing and projecting specific threats is the latest step in a process that has been occurring over the last 15 years.

A subtle change began during the 1990s following decades of recording and studying natural disasters. Computerisation had provided improved data analysis tools and increased scientists’ ability to test theories and compare historical data. Nevertheless, scientists working in several disciplines such as seismology and vulcanology were reluctant to make more than general comments on what the future might hold.

During this period, meteorologists were leading the earth sciences in the area of public predictions – weather forecasting being a publicly accepted form of scientific prediction.

The Internet initially boosted collaboration between scientists at universities and research institutions but, by the mid-1990s, it was also providing a method for publishing scientific information of interest to the public. Staff at the Resource School of Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington made information about recent New Zealand earthquakes available via their website on the 17th of October 1994, and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (IGNS) made earthquake reports available to the public via its website in 1998.

In the meantime, meteorologists had taken further steps in managing risk with hurricane predictions for Florida in the United States which led to mass evacuations with images of clogged freeways appearing on our television news in New Zealand.

With the year 2000 approaching, business became more interested in risk management and contingency planning through various Y2K preparedness initiatives. Naturally, contingency planning for natural disasters entered the picture, with seismologists and vulcanologists becoming more candid about their thoughts for the future but only to selected audiences at conferences and seminars.

In many respects, the Y2K experience was a turning point with scientists realising that widespread public panic would not result from open discussion of risks and disasters.

The Geonet project, launched in 2002, was a major step forward in raising awareness of geological hazards and risk assessment. Geonet is a collaborative effort between disaster insurer EQC, IGNS and the Foundation for Research Science & Technology. The 10 year project’s first initiative was to enhance New Zealand’s earthquake and volcanic monitoring network by upgrading and deploying new equipment and linking it to a real-time monitoring network. The public face of Geonet is its website where earthquake information is usually posted within minutes of an earthquake being felt.

Continued development of the Geonet website has seen volcanic monitoring added (including volcano cameras) and a feedback channel for the public to report earthquakes that they have felt. Data collected from the monitoring network is freely available to the public, with the databases searchable from the website.

With this steady improvement in data collection and analysis and its popular presentation on the Internet, it is not surprising that scientists now feel more confident in sharing their thoughts about the future in a public manner. For EQC which is, after all, a commercial insurance venture, this is the next logical stage in its transformation from simply addressing damage to trying to limit the costs it might face in the future.

Following the announcement that Mt Taranaki is likely to erupt within the next 50 years, we can expect to hear more from our geological scientists on such predictions. This will include the one-in-eight chance of a large quake on the Wellington fault within the next 30 years – a prediction that appeared in an IGNS publication in 1999.

The sea-change which leads to more specific prediction of events also means that scientists have to consider the consequences of such announcements. Should people be evacuated from danger zones? Should at-risk buildings be demolished if an earthquake is anticipated? At what point should tourist areas be closed when an eruption threatens?

The first step along this path has been taken with the establishment of the Joint Centre for Disaster Research at Massey University’s Wellington campus. The centre is a collaborative effort between the university and GNS Science, formerly IGNS. Interestingly, it is based at the School of Psychology, and aims to concentrate the skills of psychologists, sociologists, planners, geologists, risk assessors, Maori researchers and economists. The centre hopes to be active in risk reduction activities and disaster recovery.

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