Of all the penguins and forests and fire and ice, the horses and high wires and aerial shots in our Photographer of the Year finalists, my favourite frames are both portraits. First, Joe Harrison’s shot of a boy on a campground seesaw. Just look at the light. Look at that boy, looking straight through you. Expecting better.
Then there’s Brian Turner, fading like old tussock, like the light, shot by Alden Williams. A classical portrait through and through. Every time I look at it tears come to my eyes. This is partly because Brian has Alzheimer’s. His brain, he’s said, feels like a shower of asteroids coming at him. My dad had dementia, and he died last year, just after his 65th birthday, and it doesn’t take much to make me cry for him.
But when I look at this photograph I’m also deeply moved by the way Brian has lived. He is a poet and an environmental activist—has been since Save Manapouri in the late 60s—and he lives in Central Otago, and it lives in him. “Before the dusk / mellows and fails / the light is like honey / on the stems of tussock grass…” Turner’s partner, fellow activist and writer Jillian Sullivan, puts it this way: “Whether it sang for him or he to it, his words now paint the land and hold it sacrosanct.”
This was not a cost of living election, it was a climate election. We just didn’t talk about it. About the fact that Antarctica is melting, corals are cooking, and the world has just experienced the hottest July on record. Also the hottest August. And September.
National’s full environmental policy seems to have been quietly published the day before the election. No poetry here, and it’s fairly broad-brush. “New Zealand faces major environmental challenges from climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity,” the opening pages of the document assert. “A cohesive, integrated approach to environmental regulation is crucial.” Yes and yes, please. Throughout, there is an emphasis on data. Targets. New tech. New wetlands. There are words that let me hope this next government will share my sense of urgency: turbo-charge; unleash; fast-track.
But there is a mountain to climb to “get our country back on track”. New Zealand has committed under the Paris Agreement to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions 50 per cent by 2030 to limit warming to less than 1.5ºC. The science is unequivocal: we can’t honour that commitment and restart oil and gas exploration too. Or defer pricing on agricultural emissions. Or prioritise new roads over public transport. And the fiscal penalties for failing to decrease emissions or pulling out of the agreement would be catastrophic for the economy.
The new coalition must find a way to rehabilitate both our economy and environment at the same time. As this next government steps from rhetoric to the real-world work of making change, promises may prove very hard to keep.
Many of our leading environmental scientists have become accustomed to difficult compromises. Kelsey Miller, who spent days on the bottom of the Hauraki Gulf culling emaciated kina with a hammer, was trying to find a solution to the barrens the urchins are creating. She hated it, cringed every time, but she kept going, trying to strike a balance between our new context and a restored ecology.
As with kina, the new government’s approach to our twin crises—climate, biodiversity—needs to evolve as the challenge does (it will). But the science to underpin it is already there for the taking. We just need the will. The political weather.
It’s going to be a long, hot summer.
The sea ice around Antarctica melts and refreezes with the seasons, usually doubling the size of the continent by the end of winter. For most of 2023, about two million square kilometres has been missing in action—a record low. We’ve only been keeping satellite records of sea ice for 44 years, but the extent of the melt is “an alarming drop off the cliff” and very unlikely to be natural variability, says NIWA’s Natalie Robinson. “We’re essentially missing between seven and 10 New Zealands’ worth of sea ice.”
Some Australian researchers have even suggested the Southern Ocean is entering a new state of lower ice levels—a so-called “regime shift” with worldwide flow-on effects.
Sea ice reflects heat and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It controls how oceans distribute warmth, nutrients and oxygen across the planet. And the ice provides crucial habitat—from the algae and krill that live underneath and form the basis of the marine food chain to the penguins and seals that breed on its surface.
New Zealand is one of the closest nations to Antarctica, and our climate is strongly influenced by the Southern Ocean, says Craig Stevens, also from NIWA. “Some of these effects will be felt here first.”
When humans fish, we tend to go after the big fish first—the meaty, confident predators that are easy to catch. Tuna, swordfish, crayfish, snapper. As those become rarer, we move on to the next-biggest fish, and finally on to the grazers, like kina. This phenomenon has been dubbed “fishing down the food web”, and it’s a problem all over the world: “You take the top predators out of any ecosystem and you disrupt the balance,” says University of Auckland marine scientist Andrew Jeffs.
An international group of scientists analysed 70 years of New Zealand fisheries data and found the pattern holds here, too. As bigger fish became harder to find close to shore, fishers started catching smaller fish, and moved offshore into deeper waters to target new species. Since 1950, larger inshore predators “were likely being overfished”, says the study’s lead author, Charles Patrick Lavin, from Nord University in Oslo.
The team also found New Zealanders have been catching more tropical species like skipjack tuna and blue mackerel in recent decades, suggesting climate change is already impacting fisheries.
For Jeffs, who was not involved in the study, the results underscore that New Zealand should be managing its fisheries more cautiously. “There are some major problems with how the quota management system is operating, and how it’s affecting the marine environment.”
Record low Antarctic sea ice in the spring of 2022 caused four emperor penguin colonies to suffer “catastrophic breeding failure”. Since 2009, Peter Fretwell and colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey have used satellite imagery to monitor penguin colonies at five remote sites in the Bellingshausen Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. These birds have never seen a human, but we can detect the brown staining of their poo from space.
The scientists estimate about 9000 chicks typically hatch on the ice here each spring, with 6000-8000 surviving to fledge in December. But in 2022, Fretwell watched anxiously as the waves edged closer to the animals. Well before the chicks had developed their waterproof feathers, the ice melted underneath three of the five colonies. The thousands of young penguins likely drowned, or froze to death due to their lack of insulation. If they did manage to scramble onto a drifting iceberg, there was only a slim chance of their parents finding them again.
A fourth colony was perched high on the ice shelf. Penguins there were not pitched into the frigid ocean—but the melting sea ice dissolved a snow ramp the adult birds used to climb to the colony after they’d been fishing. Unable to reach their chicks, the adults were forced to abandon them. Only the Rothschild colony, containing perhaps 800 chicks, avoided disaster.
This spring, Fretwell says, is looking “worse still”. As this issue went to press in mid-October, the scientists had already watched the ice melt beneath one colony, and several others looked vulnerable.
Multiple years of breeding failure spells trouble for emperor penguins long-term—and they’re just the canary in the coalmine. “Emperor penguins are the things we can see,” says Fretwell. “They’re our window on this world.”
Two scientists mapping New Zealand’s light pollution have found our nights became a lot brighter over the past decade—and that most of our public lighting is now bright blue-white light-emitting diodes (LEDs) which negatively affect human and animal health.
Te Pūkenga Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology ecologist Ellen Cieraad and wildlife biologist Bridgette Farnworth used satellite data to map New Zealand’s light pollution and found it grew by 37.4 per cent from 2012 to 2021. That’s faster than the global average.
Using the Official Information Act, they also found most councils used millions of dollars of Waka Kotahi funding to replace streetlights with LEDs—but at least 77 per cent of those are cool, blue-white LEDs with a colour temperature of 4000 kelvin (K), shown to affect human circadian rhythms and wildlife.
In a paper recently published in the New Zealand Journal of Zoology, bat scientists experimented with 4000K LED floodlights illuminating trees at a Tamahere home, discovering that local critically endangered long-tailed bats avoided the area when lit. That’s contrary to a popular theory that night-time light attracts insects, which attract bats.
In humans, circadian rhythm disruption has been implicated in cancer, obesity, diabetes, depression and sleep disorders, and possibly increases the risk for dementia.
[caption id="attachment_493565" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Councils rapidly adopted LED streetlights. Trace each "stream" to see a region's journey: Waimate, for example, only started installing them in 2020 yet by 2021, all of its streetlights were LEDs. Ashburton, on the other hand, started the process in 2000 and is now sitting at 83 per cent.[/caption]
The International Dark Sky Association recommends lights should be 3000K or less; some European countries don’t allow anything over this. A few councils in New Zealand are light-savvy, too. Kaikōura, for example, recently installed dimmable 3000K and 2200K LEDs to help protect the light-sensitive Hutton’s shearwater, which kept crash-landing in town.
But the default was 4000K, says Cieraad. If councils wanted a different temperature of outdoor lighting, they faced extra difficulties to obtain it. “So most councils didn’t.”
It’s bad news for dark-sky scientists and enthusiasts, who long ago realised the plethora of cheap LEDs is threatening the natural night already lost in so many places around the world. A petition to legislate against light pollution, spearheaded by University of Canterbury emeritus astronomy professor John Hearnshaw, is now before a select committee.
But most councils have now spent more than $150 million installing lights that interrupt our circadian rhythms and dazzle wildlife—lights that are too much like daylight for the night under which we evolved. They will be in place for some time. It’s frustrating, but Cieraad is optimistic. Public lighting makes up only about a fifth of light pollution, so there is space for businesses and citizens to be more thoughtful. We can buy less intense lights, or use dimmer switches and motion sensors, or shields that direct light downwards. Or, of course, the off switch.
Speargrass has a fearsome reputation among those who venture into the high country, owing to its needle-sharp, lance-like defences. Its name, taramea, literally means “spiny thing”.
Surprisingly, it belongs to the carrot family. Early accounts record Māori hauling the plants out with a rope and cooking the roots and the flower stalk in an umu—or eating them raw. Some claimed the roots tasted better than turnips.
But the plant’s most important use for Māori was as a key ingredient in perfume—its fragrant gum gives off a pleasant and lasting scent. The whole process of extracting gum from the plant was subject to tapu. “It was the work of the women to prepare it and they went about this in the old time-honoured way,” wrote James Herries Beattie in Traditional Lifeways of the Southern Māori.
The tia, or gum, was only collected by young girls after appropriate karakia were performed. Collectors of the gum had to sleep with their knees drawn up; if they slept lying straight, the gum would flow from the plant and be lost.
The plant was cut in the evening and the gum was collected at dawn while the dew was still on it. Sometimes a fire of dry grass was lit under the plant to hasten the flow of the semi-transparent gum, which was then fixed in fat—usually refined from weka, tūī, kereru, tītī, kurī or kiore.
Scent recipes were many and varied. Taramea gum could be blended with oil from miro berries, pia tarata (gum extracted from lemonwood stems), mokimoki (an aromatic fern), karetū (fragrant grass), hioi (New Zealand mint), kōpuru moss collected from rocks in the dampest and deepest part of the forest, or the fragrant flowers and roots of pātōtara.
It was sometimes suspended around the neck in a hollow piece of wood or bone, a bunch of feathers, or a scent bag (hei-taramea). The wearer’s body heat slowly melted the scent, wafting perfume up to their nostrils.
In the last decade, a Ngāi Tahu rūnanga began developing a commercial taramea scent venture, and its first products were released under the brand name Mea in 2019.
Kate Evans was not excited about trying kina roe for the first time. She’d tried sea urchin before, but only once: when she was 18, her dad coaxed her to try some from a piazza stall in Syracuse, Sicily (pictured). “I thought it was absolutely disgusting. I think I actually spat it out.”
But when fisherman Herb cracked open a kina fresh from the sea, Evans was surprised to discover she didn’t hate it after all. “It was a fresh, salty slurp of semi-solid ocean and it wasn’t at all bad.”