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Tech-savvy Scientists Are Helping New Zealanders Prepare For natural hazards

Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and space satellites are just some of the new technologies being used to increase Aotearoa New Zealand’s resilience to natural hazards according to EQC Toka Tū Ake.

“Our country’s scientists are world leaders in natural hazards research, thanks in part to our country’s standing as one of the riskiest places on earth,” says Dr Natalie Balfour, EQC Head of Research.

This Tech Week, New Zealanders are celebrating home-grown advances in technology that make our nation a better place.

“Our researchers and scientists are doing just that by using cutting-edge technology to help people understand their natural hazard risks and better prepare their homes and families for future events,” says Balfour.

“From harnessing artificial intelligence to detect earthquakes, to using virtual reality to create an immersive experience of flood risks, EQC is proud to fund exciting research that will influence decision making and resilience for years to come,” she says.

Space satellites predict future landslides

Landslides are New Zealand’s deadliest, and amongst its costliest, natural hazards. Extreme rainfall in Auckland and Gisborne in 2023 triggered devastating slips, causing billions in damage and loss of life.

Scientists are now revisiting the worst affected sites to investigate whether the land gave warning signs prior to slipping, and the likelihood of future events.

“Until these problems are addressed, it’s difficult for people to return to their homes, rebuild, or return to any semblance of normal life,” says Associate Professor Martin Brook from the University of Auckland, who is leading this work with support from an EQC Biennial grant.

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Brook is using InSAR technology, whereby space-bound satellites map the earth’s surface to detect ground movement on a millimetre-scale.

It’s not the usual way to study landslides in New Zealand, which typically involves physically placing ground motion sensors on affected land. While effective, it’s a difficult and dangerous technique.

“InSAR can give us a much better understanding of landslide hazards at a street or even individual land parcel level, without stepping foot on the ground.”

Brook will analyse data beamed from the Sentenil-1 satellite, launched by the European Space Agency in 2014 as part of its Copernicus Programme.

By comparing detailed satellite images taken over the same geographic areas, before and directly after the storms, Brook hopes to glean insights into what caused the ground to slip and whether the area is more vulnerable to slips in the future.

This is one of the first uses of InSAR in New Zealand, but Brook explains the technology is already prevalent overseas, where it regularly provides early warning of ongoing slips.

“The most amazing and extensive example is the European Ground Motion Service website portal, which allows you to zoom in anywhere in Europe or the British Isles and see ground motion for the last few years.”

Brook hopes his project encourages something similar to be implemented in New Zealand. Landslides are such a widespread hazard that many people stand to benefit from early warning systems including homeowners, business, planners and insurers.

“A better understanding of landslides can help us constrain the hazard and define risk more accurately.”

Brook sums up his approach as, “titiro whakamuri kia anga whakamua – looking at the past, using InSAR, to move forward.”

AI paints a clearer picture of New Zealand’s seismic activity

Although it may not feel like it, the ground beneath our feet is in constant motion. Sensors picking up ground vibrations generate reems of data, which are trawled through by seismologists searching for patterns that indicate an earthquake might have occurred.

Big earthquakes are easy to detect, but small ‘microearthquakes’ can be hard to pick out from vibrations caused by noise from things like passing trucks, crashing ocean waves, or the wind shaking trees. As a result, many microearthquakes go undetected.

Dr Calum Chamberlain, a Senior Lecturer in Geophysics at Victoria University of Wellington, explains why this is a problem: “Microearthquakes are an incredibly useful natural monitor for what is going on inside the Earth."

Earthquakes occur when the ground is subjected to so much force that it fractures or breaks. Small earthquakes happen along the same faults, and as a result of the same stresses (such as compression squeezing rocks together, or tension pulling them apart), as big earthquakes.

"To know which faults are likely to fail, we need to know where the faults are and the direction of the stresses acting within the earth.”

Since AI is famously good at detecting known patterns from large datasets, seismologists like Chamberlain have started using it for earthquake detection.

With funding support from EQC, Chamberlain’s group is applying AI to revisit historic earthquake catalogues in New Zealand and find evidence of previously undetected microquakes.

“We’re detecting many earthquakes that were missed within the decades of data collected by GeoNet, and as a result painting a more complete picture of where and how frequently earthquakes occur across New Zealand. This will give us a better idea of where faults are and how they interact with each other, helping inform us on how future large earthquakes might work.”

Over the years, Victoria University’s school of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, where Chamberlain works, has developed exceptionally high-quality earthquake catalogues against which researchers can use as a benchmark against which to validate the new AI tools.

“Our biggest contribution globally in this space has been identifying issues with applying the AI blindly and developing workarounds which make the tools more robust and reliable.”

As a result of his and others’ efforts, Chamberlain expects AI to get better and better at earthquake detection.

“We’re almost at the point where we won’t need any human intervention to detect earthquakes. However, detection is only a small part of what we do as geophysicists. Hopefully, by making more use of AI in basic detection tasks, human intelligence can be freed up to think more about the physics behind the earthquakes.”

Virtual reality brings flood risk to life

If VR could bring the risk of flooding to life, would it spur action by communities to prepare for, and even prevent, future events?

That’s the question being explored by University of Canterbury’s Professor Matthew Wilson and leaders from Ngāi Tahu, with funding support from an EQC Biennial grant.

What we know about flood risk is currently captured in detailed 2D flood models, which offer a treasure trove of information about where floods are likely to occur and how, but they’re hard for most people to decipher.

Wilson says, “What excites me about VR is its ability to break down barriers of communication by providing an immersive understanding of risk.”

Wilson will turn existing flood models of key South Island sites into interactive VR flood simulations, and test whether it’s a useful way to enhance people’s understanding of flood risk.

It will be the first open-source, accessible software of its kind in New Zealand. “Several international companies have built VR flood models, but high license fees keep them out of public reach.”

Wilson is currently working closely with leaders from Ngāi Tahu to identify appropriate sites within their rohe to virtualise.

The new VR models will be tested by Ngāi Tahu whanau, who will provide feedback on whether the experience aided their understanding of potential severity and consequences of future floods.

If the tech proves useful, Wilson hopes to extend the VR map to more parts of the country and even introduce AI to generate dynamic scenarios that respond to user input.

“My ambition is for people to be able to dynamically make changes to their environment in the VR world, and see how it impacts future flood risk,” says Wilson.

Iain Gover from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu says “it’s fantastic to have Ngāi Tahu involved in driving this research, with technical firepower provided by Matt and the University of Canterbury. “

Gover is especially interested in how nature-based mitigation strategies, such as wetland restoration or native tree planting, can mitigate flood risk.

“It may lead to a double win, mitigating flood risk and improving ecosystems at the same time. Hopefully, VR will allow us to see more clearly how changes to landcover and land use change flood risk” adds Gover.

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