The Ever-more-Slippery Slope

In New Zealand, my home country, we have recently seen two unequivocal examples of the impact of climate change on our landscape and society. The most recent example, Cyclone Gabrielle , brought heavy rains and winds to much of the northern part of New Zealand, leaving 7 dead and huge damage to roading infrastructure, farms and many homes, as well as many tragedies great and small; human and animal lives lost, people injured and livelihoods destroyed.

CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF.co.nz
Destruction in Esk Valley, Hawke’s Bay, after Cyclone Gabrielle tore through the area.

While cyclones are not infrequent summer visitors to New Zealand shores, the intensity of this weather event, coming just 2 weeks after severe flooding in our biggest city Auckland, and the significant damage the cyclone caused, have made it clear to New Zealanders; politicians, business people and citizens alike, that we will see much more of this type of weather event in the future as a result of global warming, and in particular because of our warming Pacific seas which feed the cyclones further and further south.

Our politicians talk about ‘building resiliency’ and ‘better planning for future events like this’, but nobody is talking about how to reduce our climate footprint or change our behaviours.

As just one example of the need to change behaviours, much of the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle would have been substantially reduced if we had had more long term forest cover rather than open grassland on hills and water catchments. Long term old growth forest not only softens the impact of heavy rain on soils and therefore reduces runoff, but also holds the soil together better with roots that go deep into the subsoil, reducing the risks of slips and the soil erosion that results in much of the mud that we saw pouring through people’s homes and farms.

Old growth multi-species forest also mediates the actual climate, increasing moisture in the air in dry weather and reducing the impacts of wind and rain in wet weather . Instead, New Zealand has seen the steady destruction of old growth forest, almost none remains on lowland areas, with pine forestry, grassland for sheep and dairy, and urban development replacing those anchors of stability and those islands of species diversity.

Pine plantations, mostly pinus radiata, (otherwise known as Monterey Pine, from California) and the consequent logging businesses, are huge money making activities in New Zealand. Labelled as ‘sustainable forestry’, large areas of New Zealand are now devoted to growing pinus radiata -most of which is exported as either wood chips or raw timber logs to foreign places. The pine trees have replaced in many cases the unique indigenous forests of New Zealand which hosted New Zealand’s multiple unique bird species.

The ground is stripped of all vegetation (killing all wildlife in the process) before the pine seedlings are planted in rows across the hills. As they grow, the pine trees dry out and acidify the soil- some small remnants of the indigenous forest may sprout again, but mainly the ground is dead and dry with pine needles and the air is silent of birds and insects. The pine trees grow tall and straight, and in 25 to 30 years the trees are cut to the ground, and the living soil churned to dust and mud with cutting and hauling logging machines.

In 25 years of pine tree growth, some birdlife and insect life will have returned, but that is immediately destroyed in the levelling of the pine forest when logging occurs . The tree trunks are hauled away in huge logging trucks to the ports for export but usually the branches and other remnants of the trees are left on the hillsides.

When heavy rains comes, the rains pulverise the denuded soil, washing the topsoil into streams and sending the branches (the ‘slash’) pouring down the streams into the rivers to then smash into bridges on their way to the sea and to finally coat beaches with their broken branches and the mud.

Are we then going to change our ways in New Zealand about this massively environmentally destructive, but lucrative logging ‘business’? You bet your life we are not!

The business of pine forest logging is just one example among many of a world where business rules are pre-eminent (i.e .money trumps everything).

Our politicians and businessmen will talk about the tragedy of people losing their jobs and of small communities imploding if we don’t continue ‘business as usual”.

They will argue it will be impossible to construct a sustainable way of life and no longer continue to destroy our world in the way we have learnt to in the last 200 years with our business farming methods (dairy, sheep and other monoculture farming).

Their ‘normal’ is the destruction by human ‘development’ of our living world that once sustained so many species in the past in New Zealand.

Options for the development of self- sustainable rural communities, where exports and big business become a thing of the past, are simply not an option! That is, until the damage to infrastructure and insurance costs make it no longer a business option!

So, rather than planning for the changes that need to happen now to mitigate climate change, we will experience sudden and dramatic dislocation at some point (not so far away in the future) when even bigger storms wash away our current livelihoods!

Addendum

It wold appear that the Labor Government’s Environment Minister dismisses any responsibility for the issues of pine forest ‘slash’ damage.

_______________________________________________Links

https://teara.govt.nz/en/diagram/16836/life-cycle-of-a-managed-radiata-pine

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/131254089/cyclone-gabrielle-pm-paints-bleak-picture-with-big-challenges-ahead

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/484265/cyclone-gabrielle-reports-forestry-slash-wiped-out-major-east-coast-bridge

Parker’s office says slash not an Environment Ministry issue (msn.com)

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