Will New Zealand be ready for the next Big One?

Whether our next big natural disaster comes in the form of another violent earthquake, a volcanic eruption, tsunami, flooding or storm, being prepared for such events is the focus of the seventh of the Government's 11 national science challenges, launched this week.

Titled "resilience to nature's challenges" and led by GNS Science, the decade-long effort has been funded to the tune of nearly $20 million and will put the minds of 90 of the country's top researchers to improving our disaster resilience and preparedness.

New Zealand faces multiple threats from natural hazards, from the web of fault lines that lie beneath us, our catalogue of volcanoes and our offshore subduction zones that could trigger devastating tsunamis, to communities at risk from landslide or flooding from coastal inundation and swollen rivers.

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On top of this, we face the added consequences of climate change, bringing more frequent extreme weather and higher sea levels.

Professor Shane Cronin of Massey University, who has been named interim director of the challenge, said the effort represented a new partnership approach to managing natural hazards and 18 months of planning had gone into it.

"The challenge has forged new working relationships and a new level of maturity in setting overarching goals and researcher priorities that go beyond an individual entity or an individual area of science," he said.

"It will extend beyond defensive and adaptive approaches and will make New Zealand a safer place to live and a more attractive, lower risk investment opportunity."

Dr Cronin said the challenge would also give birth to the next generation of researchers in natural hazards and risk reduction, with at least 20 post-graduate students being mentored through their PhD degrees between now and 2019.

"This will not only build new science, but new capacity to deliver it into New Zealand's future."

Scientists working across a wide range of fields, from earth and physical sciences to economics and business and enterprise, would first focus on improving the resilience of our rural sector and its economy, our rapidly growing urban areas, challenges faced by Maori and areas facing extreme and sometimes unsustainable hazard threat, particularly along our coasts and rivers.

A so-called "edge programme" would tackle big unknowns such as the compounding impacts of global climate change on New Zealand's natural hazard profile.

"Resilience in New Zealand is not short of thorny issues, but we feel we have assembled the best possible team to tackle some of these very hard questions that are fundamental to our future as a thriving nation," Dr Cronin said.

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said the latest challenge would create new "science-informed approaches" to resilience and fast-track their implementation, ultimately making New Zealand safer and more viable economically.

"The research will combine hazard knowledge with innovation to enable New Zealanders to better anticipate, adapt and thrive in the face of nature's challenges."

Meanwhile, projects to tackle three of the biggest environmental issues our country are about to get underway, as part of work on another national science challenge aimed at improving and preserving our biological heritage.

That challenge, launched last year and led by Crown research institute Landcare Research, will see 21 organisations working together to reverse the decline of our biodiversity.

Its director, Landcare Research scientist Dr Andrea Byrom, said the three projects would characterise existing organisms in New Zealand, combat new incursions and deal with troublesome pests.

In the first project, her colleague Dr Robert Holdaway would develop a national framework for measuring and monitoring the presence of native and introduced organisms using environmental DNA data.

This would enable timely and accurate detection of biosecurity incursions, and better monitoring of New Zealand's native biodiversity.

The second project, led by Lincoln University scientist Professor Philip Hulme, aimed to trace the movements of new organisms after a biosecurity incursion.

This would be done by characterising the network of movements of unwanted organisms, which are often assisted by humans.

"New Zealand invests considerably in preventing pests crossing the border but post-border efforts to contain or eradicate pest incursion have received less attention," Dr Hulme said.

"By examining the role humans play in disseminating pests through New Zealand our research will, for the first time, highlight the national invasion hotspots and the best means of preventing pest spread."

The third project, led by scientist Professor Phil Lester of Victoria University, aims to combat a pest of national significance - wasps.

Four novel technologies will be developed and trialled with the most promising of those
further developed in future years of the project.

"Wasps are a great model for other invertebrate pests," Dr Lester said.

"We hope that the technologies developed for wasps will apply to pests such as ants, too."

New Zealand's 11 National Science Challenges

1. High-Value Nutrition: Develop high-value foods with validated health benefits to drive economic growth (launched)

2. The Deep South: Understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining our climate and our future environment (launched)

3. New Zealand's Biological Heritage: Protecting and managing our biodiversity, improving our biosecurity, and enhancing our resilience to harmful organisms (launched)

4. Sustainable Seas: Enhance utlilisation of our marine resources within environmental and biological constraints (launched)

5. A Better Start: Improving the potential of young New Zealanders to have a healthy and successful life (launched)

6. Resilience to Nature's Challenges: Research into enhancing our resilience to natural disasters (launched)

7. Science for Technological Innovation: Enhancing the capacity of New Zealand to use physical and engineering sciences for economic growth

8. Ageing Well: Harnessing science to sustain health and wellbeing into the later years of life (launched)

9. Healthier Lives: Research to reduce the burden of major New Zealand health problems

10. Our Land and Water: Research to enhance primary sector production and productivity while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for future generations

11. Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities: Research to develop better housing and urban environments