Shifting sands

Man vs nature is a contest we'll never win when it comes to shaping the world around us. Who'd bet on us when the other team has earthquakes and eruptions?

  Map of alllotted residential bocks drawn up by the New Zealand company, outlining the new town in 1840.   Archives New Zealand /Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Map of alllotted residential bocks drawn up by the New Zealand company, outlining the new town in 1840. Archives New Zealand/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Modern humans have a strange relationship with the earth beneath our feet. We like control, and we like conformity. 

Unsatisfied with natural roll and tumble of the landscape, we endlessly toil to temper coastlines, mountains and swamps to our liking — smoothing out the kinks, bends and troughs to create more flat land to build cities and roads on.

Drawing lines here and there, we assign spaces to govern, mapping out how we’ll harness the world to suit our desires, dividing up what’s ‘ours’ and what’s nature, where what’s ours is often decided by wealth and circumstance, rather than any affiliation or connection to it.

I live in a city founded on such hubris. The New Zealand Company wanted a town to make the most of the sheltered harbour at the bottom of New Zealand's North Island, but the site of Wellington wasn’t even their first choice in the harbour because of its lack of usable land. It was only after it became apparent that their first choice (the flat river plain of Petone across the bay) was prone to heavy flooding that the colonisers thought they’d make the most of the deeper harbour at the Wellington end.

What little flat land there was beside the harbour was rather marshy and punctuated by steep hills — hardly a promising start. Not to be bested by unfortunate circumstances, the colonial powers reshaped the landscape by filling the swamps, levelling some hills (most notably the ‘mount’ part of the suburb I live in) and reclaiming land in the harbour to expand the waterfront almost immediately.

The arrogance of the term ‘land reclamation’ sums it up. The phrase makes it sound like we’re turning the tide on the spiteful sea that has come and taken away all our precious land. When in reality, we’re the ones shifting the careful balance of the sea and wind and tectonics, irrevocably interrupting a process set in motion millennia ago.

So after all our careful landscaping what do we have? Certainly a city far bigger than any could have imagined at the outset. Houses cling to hillsides trading streets for steps and slips of the land. But do we really have control?

Hardly.

Wellington is built along a fault line. One of just many that passes through the city limits, the Wellington Fault has a history of big earthquakes and underlies Parliament, the two main hospitals, the ferry building and the motorway/railroad out of the city. Local government talks about the next big earthquake as an ‘inevitability', not a chance event. 

And that reclaimed land we’re so proud of? Extremely prone to liquefaction in earthquakes — a lesson learned from the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch quakes — where shaking turns firm ground into a liquid temporarily. Our airport is built on reclaimed land, so if the quake causes damage there and directly along the fault, that leaves no land, sea or air escape routes out.

While Wellington may not seem like the safest place to live, knowing this does provide us with an awareness of our vulnerability. New Zealand may not have snakes or spiders or large carnivores roaming the land, but here, the land itself is dangerous and not to be underestimated. Everyone living here is aware of the danger, and seems to have accepted it as part and parcel.

A similar, steady response is seeming to come from the locals affected by the recent eruption of Hawai'i's Kīlauea volcano. In contrast to most images we see of an volcanic eruption isolated in nature, Kīlauea is holding the world in awe as it enters the domain of humans, destroying people’s homes and land they ‘own’. The Earth's forces have opened up fissures and sent an inexorable wall of lava to bowl through and incinerate houses, power lines and cars.

To outsiders, it's fascinating and shocking to behold something so clearly beyond our control. But the locals seem much less shocked, and some refuse to evacuate, despite roiling toxic gas fumes and encroaching lava.

Kīlauea is one of the most studied volcanoes in the world, so the recent unrest isn’t a surprise. The vulcanologists gave significant warning, allowing for safe evacuation. The unrest isn’t even a stand-alone event — the volcano has been erupting for the past three and a half decades.

A survey of residents after the much-smaller 2014 eruption event found that 40% would stay 'no matter what'. That's no longer an option for many this time round, and the community is finally asking whether property in such a high-risk zone will be made available for residential development again. 

While terrifying and destructive, natural disasters certainly shake off the feeling that humanity is in control of this planet. Until we have true mastery of the Earth’s forces and can harness an earthquake for energy or degas a volcanic eruption into a puff of sulfurous smoke, I'd like to see a little more healthy respect for the land on which we live. 

The Earth has the ultimate power to shape our maps. It lifts earth, moves seas and creates new land. This can't be more evident than in Hawai'i right now, where new land is being formed as lava reaches the shore, truly claiming land from the sea. 

While most consider maps only as depictions of the physical world around us, they can do much more than that, serving as a tool used to convey complex information. But as you'll discover in this issue, they are only as good as those who design or wield them.