Disaster recovery and climate change adaptation studies

The Resilient Shorelines blog currently features work from two natural disaster events in Aotearoa New Zealand - both of which involved major earthquakes that affected coastal environments and communities.

Themes featured in both research programmes include the assessment of impacts on natural features, ecosystems and resources. The fields of research include spatial ecology, ecohydrology, and scenario modelling, and application to natural hazard management, conservation planning, disaster risk reduction and climate change.

Kaikōura earthquake recovery

Recovery trajectories of the coastal marine ecosystem following the Kaikōura earthquakes
In November 2016 the 7.8 M Kaikōura earthquake and severe aftershocks brought unprecedented changes to the coastal ecosystem along ~130 km of the east coast of the South Island. in response, the University of Canterbury developed a four year research programme addressing "Community concerns, key species and wahi taonga – recovery trajectories of the marine ecosystem from the Kaikōura earthquakes" funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in addition to other post-disaster survey work funded by the Ministry of Primary Industries.

The earthquake uplifted the nearshore zone by up to 6 m causing extensive infrastructure damage (particularly to coastal roads) and propelling formerly subtidal rocky reefs out of the water. The direct effects of relative sea-level changes caused extensive mortality of habitat-forming species and associated invertebrates, particularly shellfish. Important natural resources such as paua were heavily affected forcing closure of the paua fishery across a large section of coastline. Since the earthquake, hill-slope erosion and the weathering of uplifte substrates has exacerbated sedimentation in the the nearshore enviornment. In many places the recovering benthic habitats have been impacted by fine silt, smothering attached species and extending far offshore. 

Key science questions for Kaikōura earthquake recovery include:

1. To what extent will habitat-forming algae and other biogenic habit recover from the earthquakes over sites encompassing a degree of uplift, new physical habitats and across nearshores zones? 
In this case we are particularly interested in comparing the observed recovery trajectories to the results from previous small-scale clearance experiments that have been an active area of work for the Marine Ecology Research Group for the past 20 years and were done at several sites that are now within the earthquake-affected zone.

2. To what degree do ecological safe havens, with low impacts and marginally affected by the
earthquake, provide seed areas for recovery? 
We are particularly interested in the potential role of low-impact areas, including reserve areas such as rāhui and mātaitai, in assisting the recovery trajectory.

3. Can targeted rehabilitation aid in the recovery process? 
In this line of work we are testing and implementing restoration interventions such as the strategic outplanting of habitat-forming species to address recruitment gaps. These experiments are hoping to jump-start key ecosystem functions and services such as productivity and stabilisation that are important for the ongoing resilience of natural environments. They have the potential to provide new tools for impact recovery that can complement natural recovery dynamics by accelerating desirable trajectories and building reslinece against further undesirable changes.

Canterbury earthquake recovery

Earthquake effects on sea levels and their implications for conservation and climate change
This study was a PhD project undertaken by Shane Orchard at the University of Canterbury that investigated the resilience and recovery of shoreline environments following relative sea-level changes caused by the Canterbury earthquakes. A novel aspect of the study involved the assessment of similarities between sea-level change caused by land mass movement, and the potential impacts of sea-level rise caused by climate change.

Quantification of area gains and losses demonstrated the importance of landward ecosystem movement with sea-level rise, and salinity changes drove habitat shifts in tidal waterways. Managing resilience in these environments requires new land-use arrangements to ensure sufficient space for nature over time. Earthquake effects can inform climate strategies by highlighting strategic planning needs for sea-level change while also illustrating a key role for disaster recovery frameworks in achieving actual progress on the ground. 

The study area is characterised by peri-urban coastal and rivermouth environments where there are a complex set of considerations for water resource management - even without the difficulties posed by sea-level rise. As a case study, the research context exemplifies the challenges of resource management in dynamic ecosystems. As well as being boundary zones between land / water, and freshwater / marine, rivermouths and estuaries are highly popular places for human settlement and other intensive land uses leading to an abundance of competing values. They also straddle jurisdictional boundaries and this requires a high level of integration between organisations with management responsibilities and the interests of a wide range of stakeholders. These characteristics are typical of low-lying coastal areas making this a highly transferable case study for similar situations worldwide.  

Nature-based solutions
Nature-based solutions (NbS) involve working with nature to help solve societal challenges. Ecosystem-based approaches are a related concept that falls within the scope of NbS. Many coastal and lowland environments are vulnerable to natural disaster events and climate change, and action is already needed to halt the degradation of biodiversity and natural resources in environments such as beaches, rivermouths, and riparian floodplains. To be effective in a changing world, environmental management must incorporate resilience to natural disturbance events as well as the incremental effects of climate change. This is encapsulated within the notions of disaster recovery, risk reduction, and climate change adaptation.The overarching goal is to identify actions that can prevent losses and are achievable in a given situation, whilst also providing holistic solutions for built and natural environments. Seeking and enabling synergies between the needs of nature and people provides a practical avenue to help improve the long term resilience of the environment as a whole. 

These approaches recognise the interconnectedness of things we value, especially those that are ultimately supported by nature and the natural world. In this context the synergies we are looking for often take the form of ecologically engineered land-use arrangements or infrastructure design, and other natural solutions to issues such as climate change. Identifying these synergies will become increasingly important for holistic policy and planning arrangements in what is now a fast changing world.

To address the acceleration of climate change, strategic planning is becoming increasingly important and more urgent. It can be supported by methodologies to evaluate outcomes under different management scenarios. Applying a risk-based approach is also a useful to address the uncertainty inherent in predictions of future change, yet it is seldom applied to natural environments and resources. 

A significant componentof the Resilient Shorelines study involved methodological development to support ecosystem-based research on aspects of the study system with the objective of making a contribution to the challenges discussed above. We also engaged in collaboration with research partners and potential end-users as well as utilising participatory methods to incorporate local knowledge within the research approach. Together, these aspects helped to generate valuable information for the goal of maintaining a healthy and resilient environment, many of which are transferable to other settings involving relative sea-level rise.

Although this project has now been completed, we expect to publish additional papers based on some of the data collected, and are actively collaborating with others in the continuing process of disaster recovery and adaptation to climate change.

Research partners
This disaster recovery work has been supported by many research partners, funders, and volunteers. We are also very grateful for the interest received from stakeholders and collaborators, many of of whom are making use of the research results. Thanks to everyone who has been involved!

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