A word to John Key & co. about the RMA

Dear John, Amy, and the other people running our country.

I heard you were planning some changes to our Resource Management Act. I’m not actually sure how I heard it; after all, you kept it pretty quiet. I suppose that’s good – we don’t want a fuss. Especially not from those environmentalists, they can be a real pain. Like that time when about 40,000 of them said that mining in National parks is a pretty stupid idea. It gets in the way of progress, you know.

This isn’t exactly a sexy issue. You know, I normally avoid anything with the words act/law/legislation in it, because it’s usually boring as hell. But I thought I could help you out here by providing some scientific reasoning to point out why your proposed changes are, well, stupid.

A whole lot of people in the beehive seem to want to change the law to make development easier for the bigwigs, to help boost the economy. I like the sentiment. But painstaking as it is, these developments need to be very carefully considered if we don’t want to screw the environment. If we make development easier, then we risk messing it all up.

Messing it all up how? Let’s start with a slightly extreme example of what has happened historically when resources have been used unsustainably. – Society has collapsed, that’s what. The Mayans, the Pitcairn Polynesians, the Easter Islanders. Maybe we should learn from thousands of years of evidence that we need to take care of our resources.

What resources? Mmmm…fisheries is a good example. You banned trawling on the Chatham Rise to protect orange-roughey. That was good. They would have been in deep trouble otherwise (no pun intended). But these changes to the law would bring us one step closer to mining the Chatham Rise seabed. Now, seeing as I’m supposed to be writing about science, here is some science for you: Orange-roughey live ON the seabed. If you’re going to mine their habitat, the fish will DIE.

I have a little problem with the change that allows “minor exemptions” to be made to some resource applications. Now I know these changes aren’t saying, “we will allow more water to be taken out of rivers”, but what if one farmer gets a minor exemption to take a little bit more water? Then another will want one too. And another. Now, here’s some maths for you: A little bit of water + another little bit of water + some more water = a big bit of water.

Then the river level drops, the fish suffer (read: die/starve/can’t migrate), the tourists stop coming and New Zealanders get mad. Are the tourists really going to want to keep coming here if we’re not “clean and green” or “100% pure”?

You say that taking the words “protect” and “preserve” [natural resources] out of the law will “reduce uncertainty”. I’m pretty certain that these words are quite important in a law about the environment. If you’re uncertain though, you can read the definitions here.

And you say you’ll replace these words with “recognise” and “provide for”. So now we’re going to “recognise” our natural resources. Yep, that’s much more certain than “protect”, mmm, not ambiguous at all. I’m glad you clarified.

Not every opponent to these reforms is an “out of touch” environmentalist. Most are quite reasonable, and genuinely want to protect our country for the future.  I hope you’ll see reason too.


Lydia McLean.

The perfect wave: Raglan’s riches

They come from miles around for this – to stand on a piece of foam and fibreglass and slide over moving water. Gliding on the ocean at that narrow point where it comes crashing into the land.

They come to surf the smooth, peeling ‘left-hand’ that is the point break at Raglan.


Photo of Manu Bay, Raglan from here.

Even to a noob such as myself, it is obvious that these waves are good. They break by peeling slowly from the left to the right, with a clean, smooth surface to ride, coming in clean “lines”, without being muddled up by any small messy chop. It really is a beauty to behold.

If Raglan were designed, then the architect would have been a genius. “Good” waves are sorted from the chop, they break gradually along their length rather than all at once, and there is an outgoing current to carry you to where you need to be. And, just to be sure, there are seven spots to surf, all at slightly different angles, so it’s always firing somewhere…a surfer’s dream.

All design credits for Raglan go to Mother Nature herself.

Raglan’s best-known surf spots are point breaks, meaning the waves come around a headland, towards the beach before they break.  The headland sorts the best waves out, and changes their form, which just so happens to make them perfect for surfing on.

Going back to high school physics class (yes, I can finally apply this to the real world!), waves change when they go from deep water to shallow, as you can see from my artistic masterpiece below:


They slow down because of friction with the sea floor, but the water in them still has to go somewhere, so the waves get taller and squish together. 


When a wave is coming towards a headland, the bit closest to land is the first to hit shallow water, so it will slow down first, making it bend (this is refraction). 


Headlands work sort of like a quality controller, weeding out bad waves, but allowing the good ones through.

Bigger waves can “feel” the bottom further out (deeper) than small waves, so they bend further out from the headland. The small waves don’t bend in time, so they crash into the headland.

The further apart waves are, the deeper they can “feel” the bottom, and so spaced-out waves make it around, while squished-up ones don’t bend in time. 


So we’ve sorted out the man-waves from the boy-waves. But how do they break so nicely?

When a wave gets into shallow water, it feels the ocean bottom, which causes friction, and slows the bottom part of the wave down. The top of the wave keeps moving fast, and eventually this speed difference causes the wave to tip forward, and it breaks. 


Because the bit of the wave closest to the headland is in the shallowest water, it will be the first part to break, and as it moves towards the beach and the water gets shallower, it “peels” along its  length. 


The left-hand point break at Indicators, Raglan. Photo from here.

I really wish I was a good enough surfer to appreciate it!


Illustrations: Lydia McLean, 2013. 

Ain’t no burn like a NZ burn

Why does it take my skin about 20 minutes to burn in New Zealand, when it takes longer than 2 hours in North America? (Sorry mum – I hope you’re not reading this).

Almost every Kiwi will be able to tell you that it’s because of the hole in the ozone layer. Is this true, and what does that even mean?

Ozone is a gas that forms a layer of our atmosphere. It’s made up of 3 oxygen atoms, but is held together in a way which makes it temperamental and easy to break down. – Especially when it reacts with chemicals called CFCs (chloroflurocarbons – which we used to produce in refrigeration, until they were banned).


Ozone – very fragile bonds

Air currents push CFCs into a polar vortex over Antarctica. (“Polar vortex” may sound like a door to another dimension, but it’s really just a big whirlwind. Sorry to disappoint).  These CFCs break down lot of ozone over Antarctica, which (along with some other stuff which I won’t go into here) has lead to a “hole” which extends all the way to New Zealand. Fortunately for us, CFCs were banned a few years ago, and studies have found that the hole is starting to get smaller. To see a cool graphic of the ozone hole changing over time, click here.

ImageThe hole over Antarctica

But what does this have to do with sunburn?

Ozone acts as a shield between us and the sun, by filtering out a lot of the nasty UV rays which damage our skin. So in summer, when UV levels are at the highest, there is very little to protect us without ozone. As well as this, New Zealand levels of summer UV are about 40% higher than in the Northern Hemisphere, so we end up looking like this poor kid: (Dang)


Stupid as it sounds, people of the Northern Hemisphere are also protected by sulphur dioxide, which is basically pollution from burning fossil fuels. But here in New Zealand, we don’t have a lot of it, that’s one less line of defence than the other side of the world.

But there’s no need to keep your car running for hours to protect us from the sun – sulphur dioxide contributes to higher levels of lung cancer. So you’d only be saving yourself from one evil by exposing yourself to another.


Testament to the fact that our sun is harsh, New Zealanders and Australians have about four times as many cases of skin cancer than the UK, USA and Canada*.  This map shows just how bad it is:

Image(The more red, the more cases of skin cancer (obviously). See here for actual numbers.)

So here is some (slightly hypocritical) advice: Cover up, and be careful out there!

All pictures: Wikimedia Commons

* According to this

The cleverest thieves in New Zealand

A year or so ago, I was in a hut in the middle of nowhere in Fiordland, enjoying the last hour of so of blissful sleep before another day of hard slogging through the bush. Dawn was approaching, and the sky was just fading into a milky pink colour. It was a scene of peace, of tranquillity…


SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH!! The most hideous noise echoed around the walls of the hut. It was like nails on a chalkboard, but so much worse. It sent shivers down my spine, and not in a good way. Someone rolled over. I heard groggy utterances of “what the hell?” and “ah the little f***ers are at it again”. A little feathered green face appeared at the window, dangling upside down from the eaves in a way that would have been comical in other circumstances.

It was a kea.


For a moment, the face disappeared, then SSSSCCCRRRAATTTTTCCCHHH, and the face reappeared in the window. I could swear he was laughing at us.

So this was his little game. He would stand on top of the tin roof, then slide down to the gutter with his claws making a noise more horrible than the music from Psycho. Then he would peek though the window to make sure his efforts were being duly noticed (I don’t know how they couldn’t be), then he would do it again. And again. And again.

Then the noise stopped. Thank goodness, he must have got bored and gone away. I rolled over and started drifting off to sleep again.


Then two faces appeared at the window.

Alas, he’d just gone to find an accomplice to join in the fun.

No more sleep for us then.


Keas are a native parrot, and they are ridiculously clever. They can solve complicated puzzles to get a reward. One test had young kea observing an experienced adult opening a locked box 1 – this involved poking out a bolt, removing a split pin, and twisting a screw before the lid could be lifted – the young ones would pick up tips from the adults, so it would only take them a couple of turns to get the hang of opening the box themselves. Keas can also learn to use tools 2 – something that humans didn’t figure out until very well down our evolutionary track. I find this pretty amazing from a bird with, well, a bird brain.


They like to steal stuff because they eat an omnivorous diet, so basically they’ll eat anything they can find, and will take off with anything that resembles food. – I hold a particular grudge against a kea which took off with a bag of coffee which I stupidly left lying around. I cursed that bird with every throb of my head for the next 2 days until I reached civilisation!

Their tendency to destroy things (especially soft, rubber/sponge things) is probably to see if it is edible, or hiding any edible bits. – I just wish they’d figured out that my bike seat wasn’t concealing any delicious treats before they’d shredded it.

But their survivalist abilities eventually lead to their demise. In the early days of high-country sheep farming in the South Island, keas discovered an affinity for sheep kidney fat. No other kind of delicacy would do. So they quickly learned to land on sheep and pick through their skin to the delicious fat on their backs. This usually didn’t kill the sheep, but sent them mad with pain, which lead to a lot of sheep running off cliffs in their agony. Nice.

Needless to say, keas weren’t very highly regarded by farmers. In fact, the New Zealand government issued a bounty on them. – 10 shillings per beak handed in (about $65 in today’s money). Clever as keas are, they can’t avoid a bullet. About 150 000 were killed, until there were only about 5000 left, and the bounty was revoked.

Despite their low numbers, chances of seeing keas in the wild are quite high because they go where people go. People leave behind food, and drive around in vehicles with all sorts of interesting rubber bits to pick off, so we probably get a bit of a skewed idea about how many keas there actually are out there.

I highly advise going into kea country to visit these amazing birds in the wild. Their territory in the mountains of the South Island is incomparably beautiful and rugged.

Just hold on to your hat.


Stuff I referenced:

1. Huber L et al. 2001. Social learning affects object exploration and manipulation in keas, Nestor notabilis. Anim. Behav. 62(5), 945-954.

2. Augsberg A et al. 2010. Kea, Nestor notabilis, produce dynamic relationships between objects in a second-order tool use task. Anim. Behav. 80(5) 783-789.

 Photos in this blog reproduced with permission from Dave McLean.

Not all birds have wings

Way back in the day (about 85 million years ago), New Zealand broke apart from Gondwana. I know this is unfathomably long ago, but if you imagine the Empire State building as a timeline, with the base being 85 million years ago, and the tip of the spike being the present, then my lifetime has extended for the top 0.1mm – less than the equivalent of a coat of paint on the tip of the lightning spike (not that you’d paint the lightning spike – that’d defeat the purpose).


The bit of ocean that appeared between New Zealand and Australia became the Tasman Sea, affectionately known nowadays as “the ditch”. Not many land dwellers managed to cross the ditch over the 85 million years following the separation. A few insects were probably blown across, and some small bats somehow later made the crossing to become the only native land mammals in New Zealand.


The separation from Gondwana occurred in a time when dinosaurs still ran the show, and mammals weren’t anything bigger than a mouse. It was only after the extinction of the dinosaurs that mammals really took power of the animal kingdom.

A fossil of a primitive mammal has been found in New Zealand from around the time of the separation, which is the only known example of a land mammal (besides bats), but it supposedly went extinct very soon after.

So New Zealand effectively became an ark, drifting away from the other continents carrying only a select few refugees – birds, reptiles and bugs.

This posed an interesting situation – there were so many niches to be filled on this ark, – forest, alpine, plains, coast – and only birds and reptiles to fill them.

Birds adapted over the next 85 million years to take on roles that we would normally associate with mammals – such as the huge Moa, a herbivorous grazer like a deer or a giraffe, which was so well adapted to life on the ground it had no wings at all.


Artist: Heinrich Harder.

Meanwhile, all over the rest of the world mammals were diversifying and coming to power. They had plenty of time to perfect the art of hunting, food gathering, surviving and reproducing (to make a huge generalisation). New Zealand’s animals just existed in blissful, defenceless isolation.

This includes our favourite national symbol – the kiwi. This obscure little round bird came to fill the role of bug and grub eater, which is a diet that never required its ancestors to leave the ground. There were no predators to escape from, so there was really no need for it to fly. The kiwi was very well adapted to its life on the ground….


…Then, out of the blue 700 years ago humans arrived, bringing mammals with them both as deliberate introductions and as accidental stowaways.

New Zealand would have been a mammal’s paradise for the newcomers – food didn’t run away, eggs were easy to steal, plants were delicious and easy to eat. It’s really no surprise that mammals have since wrecked havoc on our native species.

Their introduction to New Zealand could be likened to a knight turning up at a medieval battlefield with an AK-47 – it’s just not a fair fight.

So since humans arrived, about half of New Zealand’s native vertebrate species have been driven to extinction, and a whole lot more are pretty close.

There are some huge conservation efforts to save the survivors, and those which are just clinging on (I’ll take a look at some examples in another post). I think it is only fair to ask for the best protection possible for those which remain.

All photos: Wikimedia Commons.

In the beginning…

It would make sense to start with how New Zealand got here in the first place. The Maori people have a story, which you can see here, but I’m going to offer a slightly more scientific explanation, starting with a German guy called Alfred Wegener who proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912.

This is probably something you do know, at least roughly – unless you flunked high school science. But we’ll take another look anyway, as it’s pretty important in helping to explain New Zealand’s uniqueness. The theory goes like this: 

–       The surface of the Earth is made up of a crust of tectonic plates, which are floating on a fluid-like layer underneath the surface of the Earth.

–       Heat from underground is moving these plates, pushing continents apart at about the rate that fingernails grow. This doesn’t seem very fast, but it has been happening over such a long time it is almost beyond imagining (over 500 million years). Over time, this movement of continents  adds up to huge distances – obviously. 

–       Over time, this movement of the tectonic plates has lead to the formation and breaking up of the continents.

Wegener’s theory was pretty much ridiculed by his fellow geologists who failed to realise that his theory was actually right (as far as we know) until the 1950s, whence he was suddenly celebrated and held up as one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Too bad he’d already died by then. 

The theory is supported by a wealth of evidence: The outlines of the continents actually fit together like a jigsaw puzzle if you rearrange the pieces, as you can see by my hugely detailed home-made versionImage

Also, there are striking similarities in geological features of mountain ranges on different continents – the Appalachian Mountains in North America resemble the Caledonian Mountains in Europe, suggesting they had at some stage been part of the same land mass.  

Wegener’s theory also explains how genetically similar plants have come to be on continents many thousands of kilometres apart. Our iconic New Zealand beech trees (think, the Ents in the Lord of the Rings) are closely related to beech trees in South America, and fossils in Antarctica. 


New Zealand used to be a part of Gondwana, which was a supercontinent not only because it was super but also because it was really, really big. The picture above shows the present-day continents which used to form Gondwana.

New Zealand parted ways early on – about 85 million years ago – and started the slow journey to its current position in the South Pacific, where it straddles the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates. The force of these two plates crushing together is pushing New Zealand up from between them.

This puts New Zealand in a precarious position. It is very volcanically active and unstable, as the city of Christchurch recently had the misfortune to experience first-hand (more on this later).  The sharp rise of the Southern Alps from the sea illustrates nicely how strongly these plates are pushing upwards.

Here I am sitting on a West Coast beach, with New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt. Cook/Aoraki in the background:


So that, in a nutshell, is how our land got to be here at the bottom of the world (or the top, depending how you look). Image

Picture from here

Hi, kia ora, let’s get acquainted

New Zealand (or Newzillun, as our Prime Minister likes to call it) is an odd place. For the uninitiated, there are two main islands, imaginatively named “North Island” and “South Island”. We really are at the end of the earth as far as most of the world is concerned – “the Middle of Nowhere” is probably a much more apt title than “Middle Earth”.  Early on, it was dubbed the Antipodes Islands, which literally translates as “opposite to foot” – which it was, to those standing in the British Motherland. New Zealand is a land of volcanoes, earthquakes and unusual plants and animals, with equally unusual explanations as to how they came to be. It became apparent to me on my recent travels to the Northern Hemisphere that this country is a total mystery to a lot of people. I was routinely asked questions such as  “How long does it take to drive over the bridge from Australia?” or “Isn’t New Zealand just off the coast of Scotland?” When I pointed out NZ to some witty, witty friends on a map of the world, they joked that they thought it was a splodge left behind from someone’s particularly volatile sneeze. Even to those who know a bit more about the place (such as those of us who actually come from here) there are still plenty of mysteries to be demystified: How did NZ come to be so isolated? Why is our national icon an obscure round bird that can’t fly? What’s all this talk about cats being the root of all evil? And of course there are plenty of things the average Kiwi doesn’t know about: A river that flows backwards; a lake that ‘breathes’; icebergs and penguins in my temperate hometown.

I’m going to look for scientific explanations to the above, and any other interesting oddities that I can find. I welcome suggestions – the weirder the better!

To set the record straight before I get started, New Zealand is here:Image

…and the last time I checked, there was no bridge to Australia.