Battling Mother Nature can be costly

By Nelson Lebo

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The excavator shovels away wind-blown sand on Castlecliff Beach, but the sand will be back in place in a few weeks.  PHOTO/SUPPLIED
The excavator shovels away wind-blown sand on Castlecliff Beach, but the sand will be back in place in a few weeks. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Nothing is certain, we often hear, except death and taxes. But a third certainty appears to be joining them: Climate change.

Last month the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, concluding with 95 per cent confidence that humans are the primary cause of climate change. That percentage of certainty lies between the percentage of wins of the All Blacks over Argentina (94.44 per cent)* and over Ireland (96.30 per cent)*.

From this perspective, it appears that the experts - scientists who have studied the climate for decades and whose reports are subject to strict peer review - believe that it is more likely that humanity has changed the world's climate than that New Zealand will defeat Argentina in a rugby test. But you don't need to be an expert to know the ABs will beat the Pumas - the average punter can tell you that.

I reckon the average punter can also tell you that "the weather" has changed over their lifetime. Talk to anyone in Whanganui and they are likely to say: "The winters/summers used to be colder/warmer, wetter/drier when I was a kid."

It's important here to clarify the difference between weather and climate. Weather is what we experience day-to-day, and climate represents overall long-term trends. Starting about two years ago, a trickle of long-term research studies emerged indicating an increasing incidence of extreme weather events - now that trickle has turned into a flood, as more and more data confirms the findings of earlier reports.

What this means is that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events - floods, drought, storms - has increased over the past half century and the trend is likely to continue.

New Zealand is no stranger to floods, drought and storms, so the good news is that we're used to extreme weather. But the bad news is that our primary industries rely on weather, and that many of our cities are located along rivers or along the coast.

Whanganui has the distinction of including a river and a coastline. Many in our community consider these to be our greatest assets, and I agree. But, if you believe the climate experts, they are also our greatest liabilities and this was made patently obvious recently when the river reminded us of its power to overwhelm.

Less obvious to most of our community were the high winds and powerful waves along the coast.

In my weekly column for the Chronicle, I recently pointed out the paradox of moving wind-blown sand at Castlecliff Beach with a diesel-fueled excavator earlier this spring. In other words, the "solution" makes the "problem" worse, and after two weeks of wind the sand was all back in the same place.

This week the excavator was back, but stopped after doing only half the job. Does the image of Don Quixote come to mind?

In addition to the paradox above is our municipal debt which, like the problem of climate change, is large and growing. As we have seen in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Detroit, the higher debt becomes, the more taxes/rates go to debt repayment instead of services for citizens.

In fact, we see this in Whanganui, but you only need to have followed the recent mayoral race to know there are vastly different opinions on this issue.

The bottom line is that we are facing two inevitabilities regarding Castlecliff Beach: 1) increasingly strong winds moving sand from the beach to the car park and, 2) our decreasing ability to pay for the removal of the sand.

I would say with 95 per cent certainty that sooner or later the practice of hiring heavy equipment to shuffle sand around Castlecliff Beach will cease. If it happens later, we will have spent a lot of money running to stand still. Striving to maintain the status quo in a changing world is expensive.

The situation is made worse by simple bad design that ignores the laws of nature.

The lower car park, surf lifesaving club building, and Duncan Pavilion were built where nature wants a sand dune. Come hell or high water nature will not stop until she has a sand dune where she wants a sand dune.

Good design is eco-design. Eco-design always works with nature, not against it. Good eco-design would never have allowed this to happen in the first place, but that was long ago when diesel was cheap, global warming was a developing theory, and Whanganui may have been flush with funds.

So the question is: how do we deal with the bad design left by our forbearers? For me, the only reasonable answer is the eco-thrifty one - one that would respect nature and save money. I know this is not popular thinking among some circles but then there are also climate change deniers among us.

I suggest abandoning the bottom tier of the car park as the first stage of a "managed retreat" (sound familiar?). There are a massive number of parking spaces at the beach and less than half are occupied 99.999 per cent of the time. Why fight nature and waste rates trying to keep them all open.

As a rule, people who go to Castlecliff Beach are fit enough to walk 40-60m (depending on the tide) to get to the water. Abandoning the lower car park would only add 20m to the walk. The money saved by no longer working against nature could be used to manage an intelligent, staged retreat.

It would be worth taking efforts to protect Duncan Pavilion, which is elevated and would not be overwhelmed by drifting sand, most of which would accumulate behind it.

* Source: http://stats.allblacks.com/

Nelson Lebo consults businesses, schools, and home-owners on all aspects of sustainability - email: theecoschool@gmail.com or phone: 06 3445013 or 022 6350868.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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