Monday, 5 February 2018

NZ media FINALLY acknowledges climate change - sort of

Should we be grateful that the media is finally mentioning climate change while keeping the real state of affairs from the public?

Ice, fire, storms and heat: Climate change is now part of our everyday lives

While the West Coast was being inundated, on the other side of the Alps, there were fires.

2 February, 2018

ANALYSIS: January 2018 was officially the hottest month ever recorded in New Zealand.

Niwa made the announcement on Friday afternoon, as communities on the West Coast were mopping  up the mess created by a powerful storm that descended over eroding coasts; as some in Dunedin settled into their homes after a sweeping fire while others in low-lying parts of the city clear up after yet another flood; as it was snowing in Cromwell during the hottest summer in many years, after a month where the mean air temperature was 3C warmer than usual, based on the country's century-old seven-station record.

Earlier in the week, the news was filled with fan shortages, wildfires and mountains shedding rock because of a lack of snow; at its end, it was 14C in parts of central Otago, multiple areas near Christchurch were on fire, and homes throughout the South Island had been damaged by the sea. An ominous super blood moon part way through the week, whilst unrelated, summed up the vibe: unsettled, bordering on Biblical.

The Breakwater at Port Taranaki, New Plymouth.

That all of these events have happened in a single week is perhaps the starkest sign yet that our climate is changing: Ice and fire, storms and heat, all together in one chaotic cocktail. It should now be clear that climate change has become an aspect of everyday life, and this is a moment where what will one day seem ordinary still seems exceptional.

Although climate scientists are reluctant to attribute specific extreme events to climate change – sometimes weather is just weather, after all – this week has been an exercise in ticking off the long-known impacts of a warming climate as they parade before us, one by one. 

A slip on State Highway 6 near Barrytown on the South Island's West Coast.

In October, the Ministry for the Environment released a report concluding that some climate change impacts in New Zealand were locked in and irreversible. Those impacts are helpfully listed in the recently released 'Adapting to Climate Change in New Zealand' draft report, written by a technical group advising the Government.

Among them are stronger ex-tropical cyclones; more frequent extreme rainfall events, particularly in the west; more frequent fires, particularly in the east; higher storm surges and increased coastal erosion, and more days with extreme high temperatures.

That report also says that despite knowing these impacts are here and will worsen, New Zealand's response to them is reactive, not proactive. The report found "few examples of anticipatory action on adaptation" and "no evidence that climate change risks to New Zealand have been reduced by the actions taken by central Government." In simple words, there was "no coordinated plan".

Wild waves crash over Carters Beach Domain, near Westport, on Thursday.

When the report was released, Niwa scientist Dr Rob Bell summarised it like this: "If we can anticipate the changes and the risk, then we can minimise the grief further down the track, but if we delay, we're going to react, and reactive processes are fast and you can make the wrong decisions."

This week has been a helpful case study for the implications of reactive, not proactive, processes.

Since the last major storm hit New Zealand less than a month ago, there has been an ongoing risk of more powerful storms arriving: temperatures in some parts of the Tasman Sea are up to 7C warmer than usual, storing energy that can be harnessed by any passing storm, making it more powerful.

Yet we are still caught unaware when a storm hits. This week's storm was noticed as early as two weeks ago, by Weather Watch's Philip Duncan.

Keep in mind a weather map 14 days out is highly likely to flip flop - BUT - this is what Jan 29th shows. A tropical cyclone NW of #NZ in a precarious place.

Tomorrow it may not exist in the models. Will keep you posted. NZ has a higher than usual chance of cyclones this year.
Philip Duncan (@PhilipDuncan) January 14, 2018

That the storm would make landfall on the South Island's West Coast – highly unusual in itself, and serious due to the region's extensive issue with coastal erosion – was well known earlier this week, while the nation was obssessing over the heat. That it would hit at high tide, making storm surges far worse, was also known beforehand.

People were evacuating at the height of the storm, and hundreds of people became trapped in choke points where the storm hit. Homes were flooded in small, coastal communities where the inundation problem is already at a tipping point, but where there is no long-term solution in place.

On the northern Buller coast, not far from where this week's storm hit, the community has been debating for many months what to do about the encroaching sea - scientists have said the only long-term solution is for them to move, but there is no pathway for that to happen. There is no EQC-style mechanism for helping coastal communities affected by climate change, despite the country's mayors and the insurance industry pleading for such a mechanism. 

We are getting closer and closer to the point where people will be forced to move; in a place like Granity, that point may have been reached for some residents this week, but there's no obvious way for that to happen. Last year, Granity resident Gavin Sykes said he had no idea what he'd do if the flooding got worse: "I'm 63... what am I meant to do?" he said. "Where am I going to live, in a car or something?"

One of his neighbours, Penny Madden, was struggling, too. "I'd like to sell up and move but who's going to buy it, frankly," she said. "I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place." Her home, unsurprisingly, was damaged this week.

Further south, heavy rain in Dunedin once again exposed the inability of its stormwater system to handle major flooding events, of which this is the third in as many years. South Dunedin is the most exposed community in the country to sea-level rise, with thousands living within 50cm of the mean spring high tide mark. The capacity of the country's infrastructure to handle the impacts of climate change is largely unknown, but is expected to be vulnerable in many places, a topic in which research is underway.

Wild weather is just one piece of the puzzle. Another story this week came from researchers at the University of Otago:  Massive ice fields in the Southern Alps are quickly losing their ice, which comes with a host of other issues. Glacial melt feeds some of the South Island's alpine rivers, and feed the hydro lakes used as a major source of electricity.

"The changes in both the timing and volume of runoff from glaciers and seasonal snow will affect New Zealand's hydro power generation, irrigation, and agriculture in the future . . . water availability is set to become a major issue," researcher Dr Nicolas Cullen said.

The Ministry of Health sent out a warning about the health impacts of warmer temperatures, which it said would increase due to climate change. One person in Christchurch died from a heat-related issue, prompting a warning from the chief coroner.

As extreme weather events become more exaggerated - a phenomenon climate scientists have warned was imminent for some time - the need for adaptation, not just mitigation, has become clear. Climate change is here, and we must live with it.

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