The Manawatu Lectures

“The Branch shall, from time to time, invite the presentation of a lecture describing an aspect of science relevant to the historical and future development of the Manawatu. The lecturer, who shall be actively involved in science and technology, shall be presented with an appropriate certificate and an honorarium, and the Branch shall endeavour to have a permanent record of the lecture published”.

The Council of the Branch adopted the concept of the lecture in November 1998, with the intention of demonstrating the relevance to science and technology to the Manawatu. It is envisaged that the topic should be linked to the Manawatu, at least with mention of local work and / or installations, and it will probably be appropriate for the speaker to conclude with a portrayal of what the Manawatu would be like without the benefits of the work described – or how the Manawatu is likely to develop if the work is applied locally.

A benefactor offered $200 for the speaker’s honorarium, together with $50 for additional advertising, for each of the first four years.

The Manawatu Lecture Abstracts

1999 – “Earthworms – our forgotten army” presented by Patricia M Fraser, Crop & Food Research, Lincoln.

Beneath the surface of the soil, earthworms go about their daily routine largely unnoticed. But if we delve into the soil and enter into the world of the earthworm, we are able to discover the important roles that they play and realise just how many jobs they carry out. Earthworms are an often forgotten, but none-the-less very important component of many sustainable soil systems and have been shown to significantly influence properties such as soil structure, nutrient availability and plant productivity. Indeed it was Charles Darwin who stated in 1881 that “it may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organised creatures”. Since these early observations, our knowledge of earthworms has increased a vast amount, due to the varied efforts of many researchers around the world. However, much of the pioneering earthworm research began in right here in New Zealand; research which has been of pivotal importance to our understanding of soil processes and land productivity. For example, did you know it was a New Zealander who showed that the weight of earthworms found under pasture was similar to the weight of the animals grazing above the ground? We may not always be able to see them but there’s a multitude of them underground, busy carrying out many functions that can ultimately be of benefit to us all. The presentation provided more information about the hidden world of ‘our forgotten army’.

2000 – “The Flaxmilling Industry of Manawatu” presented by Ian Matheson, City Archivist, Palmerston North.

This lecture examined the role of the Manawatu region in the rise and fall of a unique New Zealand industry – flaxmilling. This industry was based upon the exploitation of the native flax plant (harakeke or Phormium tenax), the leaves of which contain a strong white fibre suitable for manufacture into cordage and textiles. Maori people pioneered the utilisation of this fibre, but control of the industry passed to Europeans during the 1860s, when machines were invented to produce fibre in large quantities. Between 1890 and 1970 the flax swamps of Manawatu supported the largest concentration of fibre processing factories (flaxmills) in New Zealand and played an important in the economic development of Foxton, Shannon and Palmerston North. The industry was phased out of existence during the 1970s, in the face of increasing competition from synthetic fibres.

Mr Matheson has been researching the history of the Manawatu flaxmilling industry for several years. In addition to interviewing many people who worked in the industry, he has also collected photographs and records from private sources, and studied Government files in the National Archives. His lecture focussed on flaxmill operations, swamp development and Government involvement in the industry. It was illustrated by photographs taken during the period 1897 to 1970.

2001 – “New Zealand Dairy Industry: Past, Present and Future” presented by Lawrence Creamer, NZDRI (now Fonterra), Palmerston North.

NZ has had a significant dairy export industry since the 1880s; it is now a major player in the international dairy scene. The tight integration of the whole industry, the readiness to exploit scientific advances and new technology knowledge, and our temperate climate have all been important factors.

2002 – “Genetic Improvement of Plants: a Manawatu history” presented by Syd Easton, AgResearch Grasslands, Palmerston North.

Genetic improvement of cultivated plants is as old as human society and there has been very significant activity in the Manawatu. Plants of all major economic sectors, including ornamentals and soil conservation plants, have been the focus of attention.

2003 – “Banking (on) the weather” presented by Richard Heerdegen, ‘The Weather Man’, Geography, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Richard Heerdegen has commented on weather in the Manawatu for many years. His writings have appeared in the Manawatu Evening Standard, and “the weather man” has given numerous talks to local organisations. This talk will integrate his experience to give a long-term perspective on climate and weather in the Manawatu.

2004 – “Poplar growing for erosion control, shelter, timber & amenity planting in NZ” presented by Chris van Kraayenoord, formerly Plant Materials Section, Aokautere

Chris has broad experience of poplar growing in NZ. He discussed how scientific research has been used, and is being used, to respond to various issues and concerns. History suggests that the continuation and maintenance of a strong program of poplar research and practical application is essential for NZ’s agricultural and environmental future.

2005 – “Apples, disease, architecture: gene mapping and automation in the genomics era!” presented by Sue Gardiner, Principal Scientist (Plant Gene Mapping), HortResearch (now Plant and Food), Palmerston North.

Genetic markers for resistance to black spot, woolly apple aphid and powdery mildew in apples have been developed over the past 15 years. HortResearch has used markers developed by their team for marker assisted selection over the past 6 years. With the advent of the fruit genomics programme and the development of automated laboratory systems, the capabilities (and output) of the team have expanded dramatically over the past 3 years.

This talk conveyed Sue’s skills, enthusiasm and excitement over this fruitful application of DNA technology in the Manawatu.

2006 – “Water: Blue Gold” presented by Brent Clothier, HortResearch (now Plant and Food), Palmerston North.

Soil is the fragile yet productive skin of our planet. It occupies a critical position between the atmosphere and the subterranean realm, and lies astride the main thoroughfare along which water and chemicals enter our ground and surface water reservoirs. Our soil is the world’s biggest filter.

Water is now known as ‘blue gold’. ‘Blue gold’ will be this century’s most urgent environmental issue. We need to use our scientific understanding of the functioning world’s largest water filter * our soil * to protect the quantity and quality of our resources of ‘blue gold’.

The lecture described the advances in and applications of soil science important for water management.

 2007 – “Increasing impacts from natural hazards: causes, solutions and residual risk” presented by Mike Crozier, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.

The concepts of reducing risk by adaptation and adjustment are predicated on systems in equilibrium. World history of the last 200 years and especially the last few decades demonstrates that the human ecological system is not in equilibrium and that rates of change have outstripped our ability to cope with the dynamic physical environment.

Population growth, urbanisation, economic growth and changes in human behaviour have increased both the elements at risk and their vulnerability. Climate change and human environmental impact have also enhanced the frequency and magnitude many hazards.

In New Zealand, the youngest of all alpine nations (both geologically in terms of human occupancy), the effect of these changes is pronounced. Sparsely populated by Maori for less than a thousand years, most of the major impacts to the environment have occurred only in the last 200 years as a result of European settlement. Examples of how risk has evolved and the mitigation and the implications of climate change are discussed. New Zealand with a high reliance on tourism and with 78% of its exports being climatically sensitive is particularly vulnerable to changes in the system forcing.

The counter to rapid changes and increased risk has been an uneven growth in scientific knowledge, technology, and emergency management capabilities. Certain risk reduction measures appear to have been spectacularly successful. However, it is argued that there are limits to the effectiveness of these measures for scientific, political-economic and physical reasons. These are most evident in mega events. Despite our best efforts there will always be a significant residual risk beyond the capability of the affected jurisdiction to address.  Loss sharing, rescue, relief and rehabilitation will become an increasingly important international responsibility.

 2008 – “Volcanic risks to the Manawatu-Wanganui Region” presented by Vince Neall, Soil and Earth Sciences, Massey University.

In this lecture Vince Neall will outline the potential volcanic hazards that could impact the Manawatu-Wanganui region in the future.  This assessment is based on the past eruptive behaviour (volcanic history record) of New Zealand volcanoes.  These include source volcanoes located outside of the region.  This will then be related to the risk these hazards pose to emergency management, infrastructure, tourism, and business in the region.

 2009 – “Active landscapes: the landforms and soils of Manawatu” presented by Alan Palmer, Soil and Earth Sciences, Massey University.

People who live in Palmerston North and the wider Manawatu fully realise that the region belies its somewhat dowdy image. There are many natural advantages from living here, not least among them the landscape and soils. However, we should understand too that certain perils lie in the future; we have had warnings of them in the past, and we need to understand and plan for these eventualities.
This talk will outline how different components of our landscape formed, including the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges, the hill and steep land, the terrace lands; river flood plains and coastal sands. Each has different soils, with different productive capacity and potential for use. The combination of productive capacity of the soils, and hazards associated with the different landscape components should guide our land use decisions. Too often, this is not taken sufficiently into account, leading to poor decisions, unsustainability and hazardous land uses.

 2010 – “From the Manawatu Estuary to the North Slope of Alaska and back again – tracking the movements of ‘our’ Bar-tailed Godwits” presented by Phil Battley, Ecology, Massey University, Palmerston North.

In 2007, Bar-tailed Godwits hit the international media when a joint US-NZ research team used satellite tracking to reveal that this humble, mud-dwelling shorebird was in fact the avian world’s greatest endurance athlete. The birds made non-stop flights of over 10,000 km on both northward and southward migrations, one bird setting a record of 11,700 km when returning from Alaska to the Firth of Thames. Here in the Manawatu, a subsequent research programme is using light-sensitive geolocators to track a larger sample of birds around their annual migrations, and is gathering arguably the most detailed insights yet into the migratory lives of any shorebird. In this talk, Phil Battley will outline the work being done by Massey University researchers in the Manawatu River Estuary, China and Alaska, focusing in particular on the timing of migration of individual birds. In his mind, the Manawatu Estuary is the ideal research site, and he is set to try to the prove that fact to the rest of the world.

 2011 – “Rare and extreme events in river landscapes have lasting impacts presented by John Richardson, University of British Columbia, Canada.

Professor Richardson runs the Stream and Riparian Research Laboratory in the Department of Forest Sciences at the University of British Columbia. In this lecture, the audience will hear about Professor Richardson’s work on the effects of extreme events (including floods) on river and stream life.

 2012 – “Silent earthquakes beneath the Manawatu region presented by Laura Wallace, GNS Science, Lower Hutt.

New Zealand is caught up between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, which are continually grinding past each other at rates of 3-4 cm/yr.  Just offshore the east coast of the North Island, the Pacific Plate dives down or “subducts” beneath the North Island.  The top of the Pacific Plate is currently sitting ~30-60 km below the Manawatu region. Over the last decade, continuously operating GPS instruments have been installed throughout the Manawatu region as part of the GeoNet project (  These GPS instruments have led to the discovery of “silent earthquakes” or “slow slip events” on the subduction plate boundary below the Manawatu, detecting the first one in 2004/2005, and the most recent silent earthquake in 2010/2011.  The plate movements that occurred in these two silent earthquakes were equivalent to that of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake.  The talk will present an overview of subduction processes beneath the North Island, and discuss the latest results on silent earthquakes observed beneath the Manawatu region, and elsewhere in the North Island.

 2013 – “Are our dunes as simple as they seem? Insights after two decades of investigations presented by Jill Rapson, Ecology, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Turning your back on the sea when at the beach opens up a dynamic and stressful environment full of challenges for the plants which live there, many of which live nowhere else. The dunelands are also full of challenges for scientists attempting to understand them, and the Manawatu dunes seem more complicated than most. In this talk, Jill Rapson will review two decades of research and the ideas which have come and gone in terms of explaining the duneland’s dynamics.

 2014 – “Ravaged Beauty: an environmental history of the Manawatu presented by Catherine Knight, author of ‘Ravaged Beauty: an environmental history of the Manawatu’, Dunmore Publishing.

This talk will explore the relationship between humans and the Manawatu environment since Polynesians first settled on its coast, several hundred of years ago. It will examine the ways in which people have shaped the landscape, and how the Manawatu’s unique environment has influenced the people that have made their life here. As the defining feature of the region, the Manawatu River is a central element of this story. Not only has it been a pivotal force shaping the land through which it runs, its currents also reflect the evolving relationship of people with the environment over time.

 2015 – “Sustaining the productive capacity of our soils” presented by Professor Mike Hedley, Massey University.

2015 is the International Year of Soils, which aims to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food production and essential ecosystem functions. In this, our seventeenth Manawatu Lecture, Professor Mike Hedley will talk about the work that he and his co-workers are doing here in the Manawatu to sustain the productive capacity of our soils. Mike Hedley is the Professor in Soil Science at Massey University and the Director of the University’s Fertiliser and Lime Research Centre. Mike’s research is focussed on soil-plant interactions; fertiliser development and evaluation; soil fertility; and nutrient cycling in grazed pasture systems and nutrient budgeting.

 2016 – “The Art and Science of Soils” presented by Dr Craig Ross, Research Associate, Landcare Research

This year’s Manawatu Lecture follows the theme of the recent “convergence of science, technology, and art” S+ART Festival at Art-On-Edge. Dr Ross will demonstrate that there is artistry in soil profiles, while also describing some of the science of these soils, and some practical applications from associated soil research. Craig is a retired Research Associate with Landcare Research in Palmerston North. His 45 year career as a soil scientist started as a pedologist soil surveyor in the South Island (Canterbury, West Coast, and Chatham Islands). Later applied soil physics and environmental research and consultancies (along with an interest in photography), throughout New Zealand, USA, Australia, and the UK, enhanced his appreciation of the art and physical nature of soils. The lecture presents a kaleidoscope of soil colours, underpinned by science.