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. records. 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.