Protecting our coastal waters

22 August 2017

Auckland-born Blake Seers grew up a keen kayaker, beachgoer and coastal photographer: “The coastal environment has always been a part of my life,” he says. So it was a natural step to become a coastal scientist. Blake has just finished his PhD, which looks at the impacts that climate change will have on sedimentation in coastal waters.

He found that this coastal turbidity was likely to become more variable with climate change, due to the compounding effects of sea-level rise and the more frequent and intense weather events we are expecting to see. “There will be more coastal erosion, so higher rates of sediment getting into the sea from run-off, and more sediment movement from larger waves,” Blake explains. “This is a problem, as coastal ecosystems rely on consistent and good-quality sunlight”.

Blake used Auckland Council environmental monitoring data as the foundation for his doctorate. But he was surprised to find a lack of easily accessible and publicly available environmental data, so developed two R packages to fill the gap. One extracts and plots weather data from an online database run by NIWA, the National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, and the other calculates “wind fetch”, a proxy for wave exposure, at coastal sites.

Given that he was working off existing data, Blake didn’t get to spend much time around the water for PhD purposes. “But I did make sure I spent time up at the beautiful Leigh marine lab,” he says – the marine laboratory is part of the University of Auckland. “The view over Goat Island and the Hauraki Gulf from the research lab is truly inspirational.”

Blake’s first degree was a BSc double major in biological sciences and statistics, followed by a postgraduate diploma in science. For his masters research, he explored various aspects of coastal water quality, including salinity, dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus levels, suspended sediment and bacterial concentrations. The data for this research also came from the Auckland Council's marine monitoring programme, and the collaboration the project fostered with its staff, he says, was invaluable. “It was truly interdisciplinary research, and it really allowed me to understand the importance of collaboration in research across different disciplines and institutions.”

Blake’s now working for the Statistical Consulting Centre, part of the Department of Statistics, where he’s handling a diverse range of projects. Among them is an exploration of the factors that influence survival rates for breast cancer patients, calculating the spatial distribution and condition of power poles throughout New Zealand, and how to make the best quality concrete.