Sea level rise and academia in one nation: New Zealand

One nation recently published a climate action plan.  Its climate minister stated that some of the country’s homes will have to be relocated as sea and river levels rise.

I’d like to share this as one example of how we respond to climate change, and to share some observations about how one way it can impact higher education.  Here I’ll comment on the minister’s statement alone; hopefully I can get to the plan itself later on.

The nation is New Zealand.   Climate minister (and how many governments have such a position?) James Shaw said that global warming will drive a major housing move:

about 70,000 coastal homes in New Zealand were at risk from rising seas, and many more inland homes were at risk from flooding rivers.

Moving is one option of several:

“In some highly exposed areas, the risk from natural hazard and climate impacts may become intolerable,” the report says. “Inundation of buildings and infrastructure will start to occur, leading to direct damage and loss of some facilities like roads or other lifeline services, and public open space.”

The report says that a “managed retreat” from such areas will often be considered a last resort, to be used in conjunction with other adaptations such as installing seawalls and raising houses on stilts.

I want to make sure you hear that phrase “managed retreat.”  It’s one the climate community has been talking about but which hasn’t entered the mainstream.  It describes what it says, a human retreat from rising waters, conducted in a careful (hence “managed”) rather than panicky or chaotic way.  Look for this term, or a successor, to appear more often.

We can discuss the range of options here, which are distinct: seawalls versus elevating buildings versus relocation. Moving a building versus giving it up and rebuilding elsewhere is another choice.

But for now I want you to think about what this might mean, first, for New Zealand and its higher education sector.

The nation has about 1.7 million homes (source), so 70,000 is around 4% of the total stock. On that scale it’s not a lot, but obviously represents a significant humanitarian disaster about to occur.

What about higher education in New Zealand?  To what extent might it be challenged by this level of water?

Here’s a quick map of New Zealand universities from Google:

New Zealand universities top level - Google Maps

You can see right away that several red pins are close to the sea.

Let’s drill down on one example, the South Island city of Dunedin, right on the Pacific.  How many campuses does it host?

New Zealand Dunedin colleges and universities - Google Maps

More than a dozen downtown, too many to be individually visible in that screengrab, and all just blocks from the water.  The University of Otago‘s Central Library is less than a mile from the shore.

According to the Dunedin city council,

Our great small city of Dunedin is not immune from these global forces. Our climate is changing, sea levels are rising, ecosystems are under pressure, and communities are being disrupted by new hazards and risks…

South Dunedin is the city’s biggest challenge from the effects of climate change, because it is home to 12,000 people and 700 businesses, who live and work on a flat and low-lying former wetland which will be increasingly flood prone.

Elsewhere in New Zealand, we could consider North Island.  On its southern tip is Wellington, home to Victoria University of Wellington, Massey University’s “creative campus,” University of Otago’s Wellington branch, and more.  Wikipedia adds:

Wellington accommodates several of the nation’s largest and oldest cultural institutions, such as the National Archives, the National Library, New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa and numerous theatres. It plays host to many artistic and cultural organisations, including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Royal New Zealand Ballet. Its architectural attractions include the Old Government Buildings – one of the largest wooden buildings in the world – as well as the iconic Beehive, the executive wing of Parliament Buildings as well as internationally renowned Futuna Chapel.

New Zealand Dunedin colleges and universities - Google Maps

On the North Island’s other extremity, port city Auckland hosts a clutch of academic and cultural institutions. Let Wikipedia offer highlights:

Auckland has some of the largest universities in the country. Five of New Zealand’s eight universities have campuses in Auckland as well as eight of New Zealand’s fifteen polytechnics. The University of AucklandAuckland University of TechnologyManukau Institute of Technology, and Unitec Institute of Technology are all based in Auckland. Despite being based in other regions, the University of OtagoVictoria University of WellingtonMassey University, and several polytechnics have satellite campuses in Auckland.

One farthest from the coast, Taylor’s College, is just about 1.3 miles from the water.

Other NZ campuses are more inland and farther away from the sea, which is a fine thing in this context. I’m not sure about their exposure to rivers. These colleges and universities might be called upon, or decide themselves, to assist their colleagues should the waters hammer them.

Note that the preceding is just about sea level rise and how it could threaten campuses. I haven’t addressed off campus issues, like academics living nearby or community relations. I haven’t mentioned other climate change related impacts on a physical campus and its neighborhood, like the increasing incidence and strength of storms, the ways new diseases might appear as biomes change, or alterations to local flora and fauna. I haven’t begun to mention the many other ways a university intersects with the crisis, from research to curricula and pedagogy.

This post is all about New Zealand and just in the light of recent statements.  I would love to hear more from kiwis who know a lot more about their lands and their academic sector than I do.  I haven’t had the chance to dive into existing and planned seawalls and elevation projects in each city, for example.

I would also like you, wherever you are, dear reader, to think about what this discussion might say about higher education elsewhere in the world.

(thanks to professor Mark Rush on Twitter)

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6 Responses to Sea level rise and academia in one nation: New Zealand

  1. Arindam Basu says:

    You have not mentioned the University of Canterbury or the University of Auckland, the two largest universities in South and North Island respectively, :-), Now, both these universities will suffer directly and indirectly as a result of sea water rise. Universities also have outreach campuses such as on lands that are adjacent to sea. Interestingly, the person who heads New Zealand’s climate Change Commission, Rod Carr, was till recently, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Canterbury (you have not mentioned this University in your blog).

    James Shaw’s ideas are laudable, but he needs to walk the talk.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Arindam, thank you for adding these crucial details. This is why I asked!

      How close is each to the sea?

      • Arindam Basu says:

        You have covered practically all of them (including Auckland although you have not specifically mentioned University of Auckland as such, hence I wrote the response); both Auckland and Canterbury are close to sea.
        Roughly 15 kilometers between the University of Canterbury’s Ilam Campus and the New Brighton Beach in Christchurch, here:
        Anyway, all of this is to confirm your main thesis which is spot on: that university campuses ARE threatened by sea level rises.

  2. Glen McGhee says:

    Yes, I was going to ask about the University of Auckland where the brilliant theorist Chris King taught for many years. Check this out if you want to ‘blow your mind’.

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