Opportunities for early warning systems:
A review


By Marion Tan and Sara Harrison





We are with the Joint Centre for Disaster Research, working as a postdoctoral researcher and PhD candidate respectively. We were invited by Resilience to Nature’s Challenges to complete a review of emerging technology and trends for early warning systems. The paper was accepted to the Information Systems and Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) 2020 International Conference. Here we provide a brief summary of the resulting paper below and the promising research activities that follows from it.


The review

International policy for disaster risk reduction (i.e., the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 – 2030) prioritises the development and implementation of people-centred early warning systems for natural hazards. As such, we were interested in knowing the current and emerging trends and gaps in early warning systems technology research. We reviewed 60 recent papers from the ISCRAM literature to identify the research trends and gaps. 

In our review, we identified areas that need more attention in early warning systems technology research. These areas include (1) investigating ethical and privacy implications for using new technology and resulting information, (2) keeping up with the rapidly evolving technology, (3) developing inclusive tools to reach diverse audiences, and (4) ensuring the efficacy of warning systems for multiple hazards. In the paper, we emphasised that while technology has advanced early warning systems to new levels, we must also consider people’s perceptions of and response to early warning systems.


Next steps

The drive for a people-centric approach is important to ensure the success of early warnings in Aotearoa New Zealand (i.e., that the intended audiences adhere to the warning and take appropriate protective action). Researchers can build on the results of this paper towards research projects intended to improve early warning systems. Currently, Marion and Sara, along with research collaborators and partners, are working on the following research projects on early warnings for Aotearoa New Zealand:


  1. Marion and colleagues are working on an exploratory study that is investigating both the technical feasibility and social opportunities and challenges of developing and implementing an earthquake early warning system using low-cost sensors in Aotearoa New Zealand. The project aims to explore the viability of an earthquake early warning solution that is developed with people at the forefront.
  2. Sara’s PhD study is using an impact-oriented approach to improve severe weather warnings in Aotearoa New Zealand. The aims of the study are to better match warnings levels to the expected or experienced impacts caused by the event, and to improve the communication of the warning to be more meaningful to recipients so that they may respond appropriately.

Read Marion and Sara’s full paper, ‘Research Themes on Warnings in Information Systems Crisis Management Literature.’

Q & A with Dr Richard Turner



Credit: Dave Allen (NIWA)

Q. Tēnā koe Richard. Can you tell us about how you got into meteorology? Have you always been fascinated with weather?

Kia ora. Yes, I have always been very interested in weather since being a kid growing up in South Otago – my first day of school was cut short due to a snow storm and we were off school for the next week. The area also experienced a number of floods in the 1970s and a massive windstorm in 1975. A background in mathematics and physics was a requirement for meteorology, so I studied those subjects as an undergraduate and then pursued graduate degrees in Meteorology (MSc) and Agricultural Meteorology (PhD) in the USA before returning home. My graduate degrees relied a lot on my mathematics background and concentrated on the numerical modelling of weather and the dispersion of pests by the wind.

Q. How long have you worked at NIWA and can you tell us a bit about your main research interests?

I’ve worked at NIWA since 1996 and my main areas of research interest have been around numerical modelling of wind and its impacts – wind damage to structures, the effects of complex terrain on wind speed, the wind-dispersal of volcanic ash and pathogens such as myrtle rust and foot-and-mouth virus, UV forecasting and how decision support tools can best utilise weather/hazard forecasts.

Q. You’re co-leading the Weather and Wildfire programme for Phase 2 of the Challenge, and previously led the Weather, Flood & Coastal Hazards Theme of the Natural Hazards Research Platform. What draws you to collaborative research programmes?

I’ve found over the years that what I really like about working at NIWA, and in the science sector in New Zealand, is the wide variety of interesting projects, science colleagues and subject experts and stakeholders that I’ve been able work with. I’ve found I’m always learning, and it’s great to be contributing in areas of obvious benefit to other areas of research and the country.

Q. What will the detailed modelling created under the Weather and Wildfire programme add to current knowledge about the impacts of extreme weather events in New Zealand?

The detailed weather modelling will be a resource for many other researchers. There will be consistent and realistic high-resolution model ‘datasets’ made available to the research community of intense rainfall, snow, and extreme winds, as part of extreme but credible events. Other researchers – such as landslide, fire spread, and flood modellers will be able to use these to create detailed impact assessments of areas affected by these hazards. This level of detail, over large domains, has not been possible to achieve previously.   

Q. The Weather and Wildfire programme centres around three extreme weather scenarios – an ex-tropical cyclone hitting Auckland, a severe winter storm in the South Island and a wildfire in a Central Otago subdivision. Why did the team choose these scenarios?

Richard at Randa, Switzerland, the site of a devastating landslide in 1991

When the second phase of the Resilience Challenge was being planned, researchers and stakeholders identified gaps in our knowledge of weather hazard events that could potentially have significant impacts on New Zealand or parts of New Zealand. Ex-tropical cyclones were chosen, as the impacts from these seem likely to increase under climate change and they are the one weather hazard that could impact Auckland very badly if the storm-path brought the severest effects over the city. One of the techniques we are using is to move New Zealand around so that historically strong and damaging storms such as ex-tropical cyclone Cook (2017) do end up moving over Auckland. Winter-storms were chosen as these could impact power networks severely and wildfire was chosen as that is clearly a growing threat, both nationally and globally.

Q. What are the logistical challenges involved in creating such fine-scaled modelling, across multiple hazard types?

You need lots of computer processing power. A supercomputer is required to do the weather and flood computations with plenty of storage, plus protocols and data standards to distribute the results. Researchers need good visualisation tools and experience to create realistic simulations.

Q. What do you like to do outside work?

I follow Liverpool Football Club as well as the Wellington Phoenix (my son is football mad and he has got me following the Premier League Champions). I like to go tramping (but not alone), cycling and do a bit of kayaking (nice windless days thank you very much). I used to play golf but don’t have any time for that these days.

Q. What are your future research aspirations?

That is a great question for a middle-aged scientist not particularly into empire building.

I think there are some hugely exciting and totally essential research areas these days, such as (i) climate change adaptation (sadly unavoidable now), (ii) the study of aerial spread of viruses is going to advance hugely in the next couple of years, (iii) the quiet and ongoing revolution in weather forecasting as we tackle the challenges of getting more gains from models as computational limits are reached, (iv) Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence could allow us to discover new signals in weather and climate and will be necessary as observed and modelled datasets become more and more massive and too large for humans to effectively process and interrogate, and then there is (v) the need to be able to communicate all of this great and wonderful science to the public (some of whom are hostile to science or befuddled by orchestrated dis-information campaigns), for their benefit and to increase our chances of survival (which is one definition of Resilience and also naturally a massive Challenge).

If I can contribute in some small way, I’d be happy.



Aotearoa New Zealand’s
changing coastline


By Emma Ryan, Mark Dickson and Murray Ford



Kings beach, Whananaki, credit: Mark Dickson

In partnership with Northland Regional Council, researchers within the Coastal programme have been busy mapping Northland’s shorelines using historical imagery to explore patterns of coastal erosion, accretion and stability. Starting in Northland, this is the first step in our national-scale project that aims to map and understand coastal change over the past 70 years throughout the entire country.


Limitations with existing data collection practices make it difficult for scientists and coastal managers to understand patterns and drivers of coastal change around New Zealand and implement relevant management options. Through the ‘New Zealand’s Changing Coastline’ project we aim to fundamentally transform New Zealand’s shoreline change detection from small-scale, sporadic and manual monitoring to national-scale, semi-automated analyses in near real time. This means that councils will have access to consistent, up-to-date shoreline change data that can be meaningfully used in decision making around management and adaptation options.


The new datasets will also facilitate new research into understanding the multiple drivers of shoreline change (e.g. distinguishing between the effects of human modification of the environment, natural changes in sediment supply, sea-level change, and changes in coastal vegetation). The historical imagery and shoreline change datasets also hold value in furthering our understanding of impacts of coastal change on Māori sites of signifiance at the coast, including pā, marae and urupa.


In 2019 we engaged with LINZ and began a programme to compile historical, mapping-quality, aerial photographs of New Zealand’s coast. Led by Mark Dickson and Murray Ford, a team of 4 coastal scientists, supported by 10 research assistants at the University of Auckland, have developed and implemented detailed and consistent protocols for image acquisition, georectification, and shoreline mapping, with the overall goal of producing a nation-wide database of historical shoreline data for open-coast soft sedimentary beaches (>50 m in length). We are approximately half-way to completing georectification and mapping of Northland’s shorelines, with the view to completing Northland by August. From there, we will tackle the rest of the country, making use of existing council shoreline datasets if mapping methodologies are comparable.


In addition to the historical imagery data, we are making use of recent advances in Earth Observation (EO) satellite imagery that provide new opportunities to transform the way coastal change is assessed. The proliferation of commercial and government EO satellites provides opportunities to examine coastal change at spatial and temporal scale previously inaccessible to researchers. Led by Murray Ford, together with PhD student Ben Collings, we are developing new geospatial methods within a cloud computing framework for detecting and analysing high-frequency coastal change over the past twenty years using imagery from Landsat and Sentinel 2 satellites, along with commercial satellites. Machine-learning and edge detection algorithms will be used to statistically determine the shoreline and map national-scale coastal change.


Acknowledgements: This research is supported in different ways by Northland Regional Council, LINZ, the Resilience to Nature’s Challenges National Science Challenge and the University of Auckland. 

Climate change and ‘two waters’ infrastructure in Petone


By Rick Kool


From the Netherlands to Petone…

I’m originally from the Netherlands where a large part of the country is under sea level, so water has always been an important part of my life. I studied my Civil Engineering degree in the southwest delta of the Netherlands, well known for their delta works. During this time I got involved in nature-based solutions and through projects in Southeast Asia learned about the continuously increasing challenges faced due to climate change.

I studied for my Masters in Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, and when researching a MSc thesis project I found the Resilience Challenge, and the extensive research on New Zealand’s coastal hazards. Realizing I was more interested in the application of coastal engineering principles as part of an integrated strategy, especially in the context of climate change, I read about the concept of Dynamic Adaptive Pathway Planning (DAPP). Thanks to the efforts of Dr Judy Lawrence and Dr Rob Bell we made arrangements for me to carry out my thesis project in New Zealand. This provided me with a unique opportunity to combine my technical knowledge relating to climate change adaptation of infrastructure, with a more long term, scenario-based planning perspective.


Two waters infrastructure in Petone, Lower Hutt

The research investigated the retreat of ‘two waters’ infrastructure (wastewater and stormwater) by using a DAPP approach to frame retreat over different sea level rise increments. The study area was Petone in Lower Hutt, where drainage infrastructure is increasingly facing climate change induced hazards due to sea level rise and increased frequency of heavy rainfall events. This raises the issue of how local government can maintain levels of service for the two waters as the impacts of climate change worsen over the coming decades and beyond.

Using a DAPP approach to frame the retreat of two waters we were able to conceptualize how this could be managed spatially across the study area. In order to investigate two water infrastructure exposure in the area and consider possible adaptation options to maintain levels of service, we organized a workshop with various experts.

Water sensitive urban design (WSUD) options were integrated into adaptation portfolios to extend retreat thresholds and create amenity for the community by repurposing the area after retreat is initiated. These WSUD options usually require more space and could therefore be implemented post retreat. This scenario-based, spatially phased out approach to two water infrastructure retreat resulted in a ‘framework’ where the methodology used in this study is outlined for future use to approach retreat of two water infrastructure in a coastal setting.


The study area of Petone, Lower Hutt



Further Steps:

After graduating the plan was to travel in my van around New Zealand. However upon finishing my thesis the COVID situation escalated. Luckily enough I was offered a place to stay in Castlepoint with a friendly local family for the isolation period, and I’m now looking forward to traveling, surfing and experiencing more of this beautiful country.



The research would not have turned out the same way without the support of the stakeholders. Therefore a big thanks to the people at Wellington Water and NIWA, and to my supervisors Judy Lawrence, Rob Bell and Martin Drews and to the Resilience National Science Challenge for supporting the research.


Student Profile: Maddie Brown


Exploring Vegetation Controls on Foredunes And Their Response to Climate Change




A bit about me 

Maddie carrying out fieldwork at St Kilda Beach, Dunedin


Summer for most Australians is usually described as days by the beach, snags on the barbie, and unforgiving sunburns. For me, this is the best way to spend summer, I love being at the beach with the sand between my toes and heading out into the water for a swim. I can safely say that this influenced my love for coastal science.

I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do out of high school, but science was of interest to me and I loved to solve puzzles. I studied Geology at the University of Melbourne and completed an honours year in Paleoclimatology. I also spent a semester abroad at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. During my honours year I was able to participate in a CAPSTAN voyage, an opportunity to spend time on a marine research vessel, the RV Investigator. The time I spent on the ship and the people I met inspired me to continue my studies. I discovered I preferred fieldwork on a beach looking at sand, compared to the countryside looking at rocks, so decided to jump across to geography to better understand the processes that affect our coastlines.

Moving to Dunedin is certainly a lot colder than my home in Melbourne, but it hasn’t deterred me from keeping my water hobbies; life saving, waterpolo, and skiing (frozen water is still water). When I’m not in water or at the beach, I’ll be listening to motion picture soundtracks and will happily spend hours discussing the greatest composers of all time (John Williams and Hans Zimmer).


My project


The aim of my PhD is to discover how foredunes respond to sea level rise, specifically looking at how vegetation cover can affect this process. I aim to provide a conceptual model to then be able to provide recommendations for coastal management and hazard mitigation.

Currently I’m working on creating a map of New Zealand that categorises how dense vegetation is on foredunes and which species is dominate. While doing this I am also locating areas of note that may become fieldwork sites for further experimentation. I plan to undertake experiments in a variety of vegetated foredunes as the dune structure is highly dependent on the species present. I will focus on ammophila arenaria, spinifex sericeus, and ficinia spiralis as they are the most common sand binding species throughout New Zealand foredunes. Each species has varying biological structures, trapping sediment in different ways.

My research fits under the RNC2 Coastal theme to assist the understanding of New Zealand’s coastal change as well providing data to support projections of future shoreline change.


On holiday at the Grand Canyon, USA


Next steps


The expected outcome of my work is to create a database to assist the prediction of coastline change for New Zealand’s future. This will help locate areas of erosion with higher priority compared to those that are in a relatively stable condition. I hope that my research will benefit all those like me who enjoy spending time at the beach, and to make it possible for future generations to do the same.


Student Profile: Ben Collings


Identifying coastal change at the national scale in New Zealand through the application of remote sensing data and techniques




A bit about me 


I’m from the UK and grew up outside a small town called Fordingbridge on the edge of The New Forest, a beautiful national park in southern England not far from the coast. I have always loved the outdoors and outdoor pursuits; surfing, white-water kayaking, and mountain-biking to name a few. I believe that my passion to pursue a life outdoors led to a keen interest in geography while at school and a thirst for travel to explore and enjoy the natural world.

After a few years travelling I returned to the UK to study physical geography at Aberystwyth University, Wales. It was here that I discovered the fascinating discipline of GIS and remote sensing and decided to continue my studies to complete a Masters. I was intrigued by the volumes of remote sensing data available (especially from satellites) that can be leveraged via computer processing to help solve environmental problems at local to global scales. Whilst completing my Master’s thesis I stumbled across an advert for the changing coastlines PhD project with the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. I have always wanted to come to New Zealand. It is regarded as one of the world’s best destinations for white-water kayaking and mountain-biking! This opportunity presented the chance to combine both my passion for the outdoors and my remote sensing skills to contribute to the Resilience National Science Challenge.


My project


Anthropogenic climate change has led to acceleration of sea level rise and increases in the frequency and magnitude of storms. Changes in these boundary conditions will influence coastal environments and associated coastal risk. A robust understanding of coastal change, ideally at the national scale, is fundamental to identify regions and communities exposed to dynamic coastal hazards.

Satellite remote sensing provides data at temporal and spatial resolutions that are appropriate for change analyses of coastal environments at local to global scales. The growth of computer processing power and increased availability of satellite data have led to a plethora of global and regional studies that aim to better understand how coastlines and shorelines are changing around the world. In the case of New Zealand this is complicated by the nature and variability of the coastal setting. Differences between volcanic black sand beaches on the west coast and pristine white sand beaches on the east coast, for instance, present challenges.

The aim of this project is the development of techniques to assess how New Zealand’s coastlines are changing in response to alterations in boundary conditions. To achieve this time-series of satellite remote sensing data and semi-automated image classification/processing techniques will be applied to identify coastal features (e.g. the shoreline or the seaward edge of dune vegetation) and analyse how these are changing through time.

This work will feed into project 1 of the coastal theme of the Resilience Challenge, New Zealand’s changing coastline, with the desired outcome of providing data that indicates hotspots of change throughout New Zealand.



Next steps


My PhD is in its early stages. This includes the investigation of current methods that have leveraged satellite data to observe coastal change in other regions of the world to see how they can be applied to coastal environments in New Zealand. This will ascertain the challenges that must be overcome to develop a framework that works for the variety of coastal environments in New Zealand.

For the final outcomes of the project the development of an automated framework that can indicate coastal change throughout New Zealand would provide instrumental data that can inform effective management strategies to build resilience in vulnerable coastal communities in New Zealand.


Director’s update: COVID-19 and natural hazard resilience




By Richard Smith, Resilience Challenge Director 






We in Aotearoa New Zealand are all too familiar with natural hazard events like earthquakes and floods – the sudden disruption to communities and livelihoods, and the physical damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and critical services. The slow onset, unseen and uncertain nature of the COVID-19 threat is disorienting. Perhaps like me you are switching between quiet confidence, given the positive local responses and the success of simple actions like basic hygiene, and some anxiety about the uncertain future, driven by concern for vulnerable family members, the already severe economic consequences, and the international factors beyond our control.
In this context of high uncertainty, it is not surprising we’ve seen people attempting to prepare through securing food and other resources. Another element adding to the uncertainty is the uniquely global nature of the virus, compared to even the most devasting earthquake or mega-tsunami. We’re being bombarded by conflicting reports of impacts and responses from around the world which can be overwhelming and psychologically harmful. Knowing when to switch off the news and notifications is as important as staying reliably informed!     
Sociological research since the 1950s is clear. Panic and the breakdown of society makes for dramatic movie storylines but is NOT the usual human response. While it might seem as though self-isolation and physical distancing runs counter to the community connectedness that is critical for disaster resilience, we are seeing essential ‘social capital’ emerge in a range of ways. Self-isolation support groups are popping up on Facebook, and online community noticeboards are awash with offers of meal drops and grocery shopping for the elderly and vulnerable. And perhaps we’ll all finally learn how to unmute our microphones while on a conference call!
Soon, we may be required to slow right down and live very locally. We are reasonably familiar with what that means for individual communities post-disaster, but what will that mean for the whole nation? Natural hazard resilience research is relevant for understanding those impacts, and developing helpful interventions as part of the social and economic recovery after the health response has finished. There will also be key lessons from this event that are relevant to future natural hazard resilience (such as business continuity preparedness, supply chain resilience, and risk communication). The Resilience Challenge community stands ready to support that national effort.
Kia kaha koutou. Look after yourselves and others in these unusual times.















































The impact of the Kaikōura earthquake on perceptions of earthquake risk in Wellington


By Lauren Vinnell

There are many challenges to studying peoples’ thoughts and behaviour around earthquakes; one of them is that we can’t easily test the how such events change the way people think and act. We can ask people about their past experiences or we can ask them after an event to recall what they thought and what they did before an event. These methods have generated a lot of valuable, useful information to help us encourage people to prepare, for example. Occasionally, however, we have the opportunity to use a different method; a natural experiment. This is where study participants are assigned to conditions, like in an experiment, except that the assignment is done by a natural phenomenon instead of by the researcher. Using this method relies on timing as you can’t really plan a study to be before something like an earthquake, but if we happen to have run a study just before something happens we can then run another study afterwards designed to allow us to compare the data from the two time points.

I ran a survey of Wellingtonians, looking at their support for legislation to strengthen earthquake-prone buildings, a few months before the November 2016 Kaikōura earthquake. I ran the same survey again in December, which meant that I had answers to the same questions from both before and after the earthquake so that I could see how the event changed those answers.


Lauren presenting at the Risk and Decision-making Conference, Wellington, Nov 2019. Credit: Emma Hudson-Doyle

Several of my findings were expected. People were more concerned about both earthquake-prone buildings and earthquakes generally and were more prepared after the Kaikōura earthquake (although past research tells us that these increases will disappear pretty quickly). Surprisingly, people in Wellington were generally less supportive of legislation to strengthen earthquake-prone buildings following the earthquake, even though they were more concerned about the risk they pose. This might be because the legislation applies only to older buildings, while several high-profile, more modern buildings were damaged in the earthquake. This finding has important implications for both how we communicate to the public about the legislation as well as how we report on earthquake damage to make sure that reasons for unusual or unexpected impacts are explained.


Demolition of Wellington building after Kaikōura earthquake. Credit: Margaret Low, GNS Science

In this study, I also tested the impact of social norm messages which describe whether a particular group engages in and approves of a particular behaviour. Some of the participants were told that most other Wellingtonians approved of the legislation (called an injunctive social norm) and others were told how many buildings are being strengthened each year (called a descriptive social norm). I had already found that these messages affected Wellingtonians’ opinions about the legislation; I wanted to know if these social norms were as impactful right after the earthquake.

We know from past social science research that people tend to rely on this information when they have less knowledge already. People knew more about the legislation after the earthquake and there was some evidence that our social norm messages had less of an impact. They did still show some effects on participants’ opinions about the legislation however, suggesting that if we use this type of messaging to encourage natural hazard preparation and something like an earthquake happens to occur, then the messaging should still be effective.


Q & A with Dr Rob Bell



Rob receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award with Hon James Shaw & NIWA Board chair Barry Harris. Credit: Stu Mackay

Q: Congratulations on your recent Lifetime Achievement Award from NIWA – what does this award mean for you, and the research you’ve been involved in?

It was a total surprise (a well-kept secret), but I’m humbled to have been honoured by NIWA for my work over the decades and to have the award presented by the Minister for Climate Change Hon James Shaw at our Leaders’ Forum. But really it is down to team effort, as many of the coastal and climate change issues and planning/design challenges require an inter-disciplinary approach and I’ve been fortunate to work with some great researchers and practitioners – both in and outside NIWA. The Award also highlights the growing need for action on climate change matters, with our collective efforts culminating in guidance for local government on coastal adapation. It is a testament to the multi-year research and innovative approaches needed for responding to changing risk that sits behind such decision-support systems.

Q: You studied Civil Engineering and have worked extensively in the areas of coastal and estuarine management, flooding, coastal hazards and the impacts of climate change on our coasts. What drew you to studying the power of water?

I grew up in a small village in South Canterbury spending time at the nearby river, coastal hāpua and gravel beach. There were occasional evacuations up the nearby hill due to floods and the 1960 Chile tsunami. These experiences drew my curious mind to how these coastal-river systems work, both in peace time and in nature’s fury. Fortunately, I had an astute science teacher at high school who had a Civil Engineering degree. He advised me to try engineering, as I wanted to work with science but come up with practical solutions to complex problems, which is at the heart of the engineering process.

Q. It seems there has been an upsurge of awareness about climate change and coastal risk in recent years. Does it frustrate you that it has taken so long, or are you heartened by it?

Yes it has been a slow burn since 2001 when three of us developed the first coastal climate-change guidance for the Ministry for the Environment. But I have been heartened working with university and NIWA researchers along the way, to build the evidence base and chip away at improving awareness through public and conference presentations – especially the “aha” moments when people get it. Certainly, a year ago when we rolled out the MfE coastal guidance at 13 locations around New Zealand, which came on the back of the 2017/18 summer of coastal storms, we detected a  groundswell of change to asking “what can we do about it?” rather than probing the evidence.


Q. Your recent report with Dr Judy Lawrence and others looked at lessons learned from applying the approaches in MfE’s Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Guidance.  Can you tell us a bit more about this?

Credit: Dave Allen

The Living at the Edge team from Phase 1 of the Resilience 

Challenge worked alongside councils, consultants, community panels and local iwi/hapū in developing the Hawke’s Bay Coastal Strategy 2120, as a ‘trusted friend’ of the process. It was a pilot application of the Dynamic Adaptive Pathways Planning approach, which the MfE guidance recommends. The engagement processes, governance arrangements and methods worked well overall in achieving a suite of pathways out to 100 years (2120) for each coastal area north and south of Napier. The Strategy is now in the implementation phase. But some lessons were also gleaned from the experience. Some of these included the critical role of transparent and enabling governance, the value of engaging collaboratively with communities, seeking the wider-community views and the importance of vulnerability assessments alongside the more conventional risk assessments that look out at least 100 years. The report is available on the Challenge website.

Q. You’re co-leading the Coastal theme for Phase 2 of the Resilience Challenge, and you also contribute research to the Deep South Challenge. What appeals to you about working on National Science Challenges?

Credit: Stu Mackay

I’m collaborative by nature and enjoy working in multi-discipline teams solving complex multi-faceted problems like the conundrums posed by ongoing sea-level rise and the interface with planning and engineering.

Q. Is there a project or planned outcome in the Coastal programme that you’re particularly excited about?

We need to improve the picture of our national and regional-scale exposure to sea-level rise – especially coastal erosion, and to back-fill some of the gaps around tools and guidance that we could only cover lightly in the MfE guidance, e.g. how to do coastal vulnerability assessments in Aotearoa NZ, embedding and implementing adaptive pathways in statutory processes, and how to undertake adaptive design for coastal infrastructure.

Q. You’re well travelled – how do you think New Zealand’s
level of preparedness for coastal hazards compares with other coastal nations?

It varies. We are starting to see more central government direction and coordination (work packages on statutory enablers and starting our first national climate risk assessment) that some other jurisdictions like the UK are ahead on, but internationally we have been one of the first to adopt an adaptive pathways planning framework into national guidance – working closely with colleagues in The Netherlands.

Q. When it comes to coastal resilience, where do you hope we’ll be as a country in a decade?

Rob on the Motu trail near Opotiki. Credit: Ruth Bell

In relation to low-lying coastal areas, we only have a decade to develop and implement alternate pathway plans before coastal flooding becomes more frequent – both nuisance (disruptive) and larger events. Somehow, we need to move from fighting and defending our exposed housing and services from the advancing sea, to working more with nature-based solutions. In parallel, we need to turn our attention to how we accomplish equitable and coordinated relocation or managed retreat, which will be inevitable for some areas in the face of the sea rising for several centuries. The other side of the response over the next decade is the need for a serious attempt to mitigate carbon emissions, which globally can reduce the rate of that rise in sea level.



Q & A with Dr Sally Potter



Q. Have you always been interested in science? When did you realise you wanted to be a scientist?

I’ve always liked understanding ‘why’ things happen, and enjoy the process of investigation. My favourite movies as a kid were disaster movies, and now being able to spend my days looking into more effectively warning people about hazards is pretty much a dream come true!

Q. What did you study at university, and what was your PhD on?

I completed a Bachelor of Science in Geology at Victoria University, and an Honours degree at Massey University in Volcanology.

My PhD was in Emergency Management (Social Science and Volcanology) through Massey University. My PhD topic looked at the communication of volcano information, particularly for caldera unrest. I reviewed New Zealand’s Volcanic Alert Level system with volcanologists and various stakeholders using social science methodologies, and then implemented the new system with MCDEM in 2014; I investigated how often, and how severely, Taupō volcano has had historical unrest; and I developed a Volcanic Unrest Index to combine the various volcanic monitoring parameters for easier communication and decision-making. I then did a post-doc with MetService looking at the challenges and benefits of impact-based severe weather warnings.


Q. Your recent work has focused on warnings for natural hazards, what drew you to that subject?

I find it exciting looking at warnings – they are the final step in reducing risk to natural hazards. Once you’ve done all the planning and policy changes you can, improved building codes and infrastructure resilience, and people are prepared and are aware of the hazards, and have strong community networks, then all that’s standing between you and a hazard is this little piece of information that alerts you to take action. It might be a natural warning (like earthquake shaking alerting you to a possible tsunami), or come from a colleague, family, TV, or an official agency. By making sure that warning is as effective as possible, it enables people to take the most appropriate action for themselves and their family to stay safe.

Q. What makes a warning effective?

People respond to warnings in different ways, depending on things like:

  • if they can sense the event (e.g. see severe weather, hear a roar, feel earthquake shaking, smell smoke);
  • what other people are doing in response (if anything);
  • whether they receive, pay attention to, and understand a warning;
  • their own mindset;
  • how threatened they feel from the hazard;
  • whether they think they can respond to the event and if that response will be effective in keeping them safe; and
  • whether they trust the agency/person and warning.

By providing an effective warning, we can slightly influence some of these factors. So, we can make sure as many people as possible receive the warning and pay attention to it (e.g. NZ recently implemented Emergency Mobile Alerts to quickly reach more people), make sure the warning is easy to understand (language and terminology), help people to understand the threat and impacts that might happen to them personally and to their family, and suggest protective actions that are achievable and effective. The warnings also need to be accurate and consistent between sources.

Q. You were part of a team that recently won the 2019 Excellence in Emergency Communication Research Award. Congratulations, and can you tell us a bit more about that?

The award-winning team: L-R Emma Hudson-Doyle (Massey), Sally Potter (GNS Science), Julia Becker (Massey)

Thanks! The award was from EMPA (Emergency Media and Public Affairs), and the result of an epic 5-year research project that looked at aftershock information needs for agencies and the public following the Canterbury Earthquakes, and how people interpreted and responded to it. Our main findings were that it’s important to include information and training about aftershocks prior to an earthquake; people wanted information in a variety of formats (e.g. maps, tables, graphs, text, analogies) and their needs changed over time; showing empathy in information is important; and that geoscientists need to strategise how to best provide the information before an event happens.

The project was led by Julia Becker (Massey University), and involved researchers from GNS Science (me), Massey University (Emma Hudson-Doyle), US Geological Survey (Sara McBride and Anne Wein), and Charles Darwin University (Douglas Paton).

Q. You’re co-leading the Weather theme for Phase 2 of the Resilience Challenge. What drew you to working on the Challenge?

I am excited to be working with such a multidisciplinary team to conduct underpinning research on hazard and impact models for severe weather, landslides and wildfire; investigate engineering solutions; as well as utilise social science to improve mitigation measures with stakeholders and communities. It also gives me an opportunity to work with stakeholders and the wider weather community, as well as the researchers in the other themes, to help link research to practice. It works in well with my role of co-leading the Communication Task Team for the World Meteorological Organization’s High Impact Weather research programme, so that I can align our NZ research with global research directions.

Q. What are your future aspirations? 

A bit of stretch goal for me is to eventually look into warnings across all of the natural hazards – the trickiest one would probably be warning systems for meteor impacts! I’d also like to investigate more effective warnings to all parts of our communities, and their diverse needs.

And my overarching goal is to maintain a careful work-life balance as I have two young sons.