GNS Science Curtails Hazardwatch Service

GNS Science has closed the public information aspect of its Hazardwatch website, retaining the commercial property evaluation service.

The Hazardwatch website has provided weekly summaries of geological and weather hazards in New Zealand for a number of years. Every Friday, the site provided a weekly record of floods, landslides, earthquakes, volcanic activity and a featured item from historical records.

At the end of June, the public presentation of this information was ended, with the revamped website repackaging earthquake reports from the Geonet website. Landslide and slip reporting has dramatically diminished, and weekly summaries of the state of the nation’s volcanoes are no longer available. Tsunami reports of interest to New Zealanders are no longer available, but links to bulletins issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre are provided.

The only part of the website which remains largely unchanged is the commercial service known as Property Insight, which allows New Zealanders to purchase hazard reports for their property.

The cutback marks a major reduction in GNS Science’s reporting of current geological activity to the public. Whilst the Geonet website provides basic information on most of the earthquakes that are felt (or likely to have been felt) in New Zealand, a useful feedback channel on earthquake swarms and damage caused by larger events has been closed. The essential human element which determined whether an earthquake event was of importance or interest has been dropped in favour of an automated service running on the Geonet platform.

More seriously, New Zealanders no longer have regular updates on the health of the nation’s volcanoes. GNS Science is responsible for monitoring New Zealand’s volcanic hazards, and staff visit them on a regular basis to measure emissions, temperatures and evaluate volcanic tremor. In recent times, the weekly summaries on the Hazardwatch website provided essential information on the increased volcanic tremor at Mt. Ngauruhoe, the rapid heating and evaporation of the crater lake at White Island, and the lahar risk at Mt. Ruapehu as it developed.

The only volcanic information now provided to the New Zealand public by GNS Science is through the Alert Bulletins issued via the Geonet website. These bulletins are issued irregularly, and only when activity has signalled a serious change in a volcano’s status.

In some respects GNS Science seems to be swimming against the tide of overseas organisations that are utilising the web to make more information available to the public, thereby promoting an interest in science. Scientists here have been bemoaning the declining number of science students attending our universities in recent years. What we need is more material being published to show school-leavers that careers in science are both exciting and useful, and to encourage them to study scienctific subjects further at university.

Automated reporting tools like those in use by Geonet have their place, and suit applications that present factual information on a website in a timely fashion. And whilst this may save money, it makes for a boring work life when only automated daemons write the website reports. The scientists that I know like to enthuse, collaborate, write papers and share their knowledge with the public. There is still a place for clearly-written reports and articles that provide additional information for visitors to websites.

Not surprisingly, the closure of the public information service has affected the ability of Wild Land to provide monthly summaries of geological activity in New Zealand. The report for June, which includes the last volcanic summary, will be issued shortly. The value of producing monthly reports containing only earthquake summaries from July is being assessed.

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