No more silence

Written by      

New Zealand has a government-funded research organisation that studies and monitors our volcanoes. It’s thanks to GNS Science data that, following an earthquake, we can immediately turn to GeoNet to look up its magnitude and where it struck. GeoNet also lists volcanic alert levels—as I write this, White Island is at level two out of five, while Ruapehu is at level one.

GNS scientists are the people who painstakingly measure rocks hurled out of vents and run computer models to figure out how and when those rocks were ejected. This information is published online and distributed to other government bodies, such as Civil Defence, which have the ability to prevent access to volcanoes or high-risk areas.

Given that GNS volcanologists are the experts on Whakaari/White Island, journalist Geoff Chapple wanted to speak with them for our story on the December 9 eruption. After three weeks of delays, GNS refused to be interviewed.

Before this issue went to print, I approached GNS once more to fact-check our story, and was refused access to scientists. GNS representatives suggested that we should publish it in six months, or a year, and that it was inappropriate to pursue it now.

I disagree. Following an event like this, questions abound. What happened, and why wasn’t there any warning? Will it happen again? What’s a hydrothermal eruption? How do the authorities charged to protect us manage the risk of volcanic activity?

It seems reasonable that the volcanologists whose job it is to understand our volcanoes be able to talk about them. They should be able to describe what we know about the complex systems beneath Whakaari—and what we don’t know.

Similarly, our feature on fairy terns in this issue also involved a delay. We were ready to produce this story in 2018, and when a DOC representative offered us access, we leapt at the opportunity to observe the birds.

Then other DOC staff shut us down. “Come back next year,” they told us.

I argued that the matter was urgent. Fairy terns nest on public beaches, and one of the main threats to them is disturbance by people and their dogs. People can’t care about what they don’t know about, I said.

“Most people don’t know what a fairy tern is,” recovery group leader Troy Makan told me this February. It was 21 months after I’d first spoken to DOC about producing a story.

DOC staff were generous this summer in allowing us to shadow them, and photographer Richard Robinson went above and beyond in terms of the time he dedicated to the birds to document their lifecycle, shooting through a long lens in order not to disturb them.

Both of these instances speak to an increasing tendency for government agencies to restrict information until it’s convenient for them to release it, rather than when it’s crucial for the story to be told. I thought the plight of the fairy tern was critical enough that it deserved to be introduced to you sooner. I think the tragedy of Whakaari provides an opportunity to understand how our volcanoes function and the risks they pose—now, not in a year’s time.

Why is it important for this information to be freely available? Because a lack of understanding is also a form of risk.

Governments around the world have experimented with keeping their people in the dark, and so far, the results of having an uninformed public are not encouraging.

GNS Science studies one of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of our country, and if it released its experts to speak freely, they’d be in demand. The information they produce is important—almost all of us are vulnerable to seismic forces, invisible and beyond our control. You deserve to hear what they’ve learned.

More by