New Zealand and Māori

New Zealand, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, has a population of just over 4 million people, divided into the North and South Islands, as well as over 700 smaller islands (Jones et al., 2014).

- The Indigenous peoples of the country, the Māori, comprise 14.9% of the total population (Bycroft et al., 2016). Like many other indigenous populations, colonization of Māori has led to dispossession of land and destabilized cultural foundations (Jones et al., 2014).

- Economic, social, and political marginalization follow (Bennett et al., 2014). Māori are disproportionately exposed to adverse social and economic conditions, as well as increased impacts from climate change (Jones et al., 2014).

Map showing the percentage of people identifying as ethnically Maori across New Zealand in the 2006 census

(Vardion, 2008).

Sea Level Rise (SLR) Risks to an Island Community

Primary threats climate change poses globally include sea level rise, flooding, increased temperatures, extreme weather, heavy rainfall, and droughts (Bennett et al., 2014; Malhi et al., 2020).

According to the IPCC in the sixth assessment report, increased mean and extreme sea level, along with ocean warming and acidification, are projected to exacerbate risks in low-lying coastal areas for human communities (IPCC, 2022).


Sea Level Rise is projected to

  1. Increase erosion on sedimentary coastlines and flooding in low-lying coastal areas (IPCC, 2022).
  2. Cause a rise in groundwater over low-lying land that increases the frequency and extent of flooding (Smith et. al., 2017).
  3. Be compounded by climate-related changes in waves, storm surge, rising water tables, river flows, and alterations in sediment delivery to the coast (medium confidence) (IPCC, 2022).

The three main contributors to SLR are a net increase in the total mass of ocean water, increases in ocean volume due to thermal or salinity changes in water density, and lastly geophysical responses of the Earth’s crust and oceans to adjustments to the gravitational field, mostly due to the loss in land-based ice (Ackerley et al., 2013; Frederikse et al., 2020).

Flooding and Infrastructure Hazards

The average absolute rate of SLR in New Zealand is 2.0 mm per year. (Ackerley et al., 2013). While within the average range for global SLR, 1.8 ±0.5 mm per year, it lies within the upper range, showing an increased risk (Ackerley et al., 2013; Douglas, 1991).

Only modest rises in sea level are required for an infrequent one-in one hundred-year present day sea flood to become an annual event (for example only 30 cm for Wellington) (R. G. Bell, 2018).

The IPCC shows that SLR in particular has compounding and cascading impacts due to the interdependent systems in cities (IPCC, 2022). The longevity and patience of seaports, airports, water treatment plants, roads, and railways are all at risk from sea level rise in New Zealand (IPCC, 2022).

Rainfall is expected to become more intense, with a projected 13-18% increase in the one-hour duration rainfall for every 1°C rise in temperature (R. G. Bell, 2018).

This will substantially impact urban flooding and low-lying coastal areas with rising groundwater levels from SLR (R. G. Bell, 2018; Smith et al., 2017).

Sea-level rise is expected to continue, increasing the frequency of extreme high tides and associated risks, such as coastal flooding, erosion, and inundation (Bennett et al., 2014).

Golden Bay, New Zealand

Judith Hoch, 2012

Waikato River flood near Glen Murray, New Zealand

Capper, 2008

Timaru District Floods

New Zealand Archives, 1986

Subsidence in New Zealand

Due to the influence of tectonic movement, recent earthquake activity has been analyzed in New Zealand, specifically those occurring at the bottom of the North Island and the top of the South Island (Hannah, 2004; Smith et al., 2017).

This is related to the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake that caused significant subsidence in some areas and notable changes in the shoreline (Smith et al., 2017).

At least 75% of the shore of New Zealand could be liable to retreat with sea level rise and subsidence (Hicks, 1991).

Exposure of Māori to Sea Level Rise

The area of Wellington continues to exhibit the highest relative sea-level rise for all sites in New Zealand, 2.30 mm/year since 1901 (R. Bell & Hannah, 2019). This is in part due to the underlying subsidence in the region (Hannah, 2004; R. Bell & Hannah, 2019).

According to the IPCC, the impacts from rising mean sea level are being compounded by in part by climate-related changes in storm surge (medium confidence) (IPCC, 2022).

Storm surge in New Zealand causes coastal flooding and exacerbates coastal erosion (Smith et al., 2017; Tausía et al., 2023).

The 1955 flooding event in the Thames Region occurred when peak storm surge overlapped with high tide causing damage worth around $3-4 million (Tausía et al., 2023).

During the spring and summer of 2017 and 2018, several large storms in New Zealand, most coinciding with high tides, caused flooding to homes and damaged infrastructure (Tausía et al., 2023).

(Lisk, 2017).

Costs of Climate Change

Climate change related disasters are not only hazardous to the environment of New Zealand, but they come with a heavy price tag. So far from 2007 to 2017, the 12 most expensive floods in terms of insured losses have totaled $471.56 million, attributing $140.48 million to climate change (IPCC, 2022).

  • If a future SLR of 1.5 meters were to happen, an estimated $19 billion worth of infrastructure would be exposed nationwide (Frame et al., 2018).

For Indigenous communities in New Zealand, a changing climate is expected to aggravate the social, economic and health inequalities experienced by the Māori (IPCC, 2022). The loss of coastal land, urupā (cemeteries), marae (traditional Māori meeting places) and other culturally significant sites will add to higher rates of mental illness and suicide (Jones et al., 2014).

Vulnerabilities of Māori to Climate Change

Maori rowing ceremonial choreography

Royan, 2006

Climate change is found to cause different impacts for different population groups due to factors such as geographic location, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, as well as health status (Bennett et al., 2014; IPCC, 2022; Jones et al., 2014). 

  • Māori in New Zealand are at risk of greater adverse health impacts from climate change (Bennett et al., 2014) due to the colonial system that perpetuates social, economic, and political marginalization (Jones et al., 2014).

According to the IPCC, nearly ninety percent of New Zealand’s population is urban, facing severe housing, health, education, employment, and service issues (IPCC, 2022).

Most of these coastal areas have a higher proportion of Indigenous inhabitants, increasing their vulnerability to climate change (IPCC, 2022).

Many Māori settlements in rural areas contain vulnerable infrastructure and lack the resilience to cope with extreme events such as sea level rise (Bennett et al., 2014; Jones et al., 2014). The infrastructure of these settlements are experiencing compounding coastal hazards, elevated water table associated with intense rainfall and rising sea level, jeopardizing stormwater and wastewater infrastructure and drinking water supply and quality (IPCC, 2022).

Adaptation & Resiliency Measures

New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment released a “Coastal Hazards and Climate Change” guidance document for local governments in 2017, highlighting categories of options including: (Ministry for the Environment, 2017).

  • Maintaining the status quo (no further development)
  • Preparation of retreat
  • Investment in protection of the area
  • Combinations and intermediate options

Soft measures, such as dune restoration, wetland enhancement, and beach nourishment are mentioned to increase resiliency (Ministry for the Environment, 2017).

Land use change, planning policies, staged retreat, and structural development (seawalls, raised roads, storm surge barriers) are all specific adaptation measures possible in New Zealand (Ministry for the Environment, 2017).

Sand dunes at Spencer Park, New Zealand 

Emma Kelland, 2011

Rather than fighting the influx of water, adopting water-sensitive urban design that works with stormwater, groundwater, and floods could combat the sea level rise (R. G. Bell, 2018).

Importantly, the country’s 2022 National Adaptation Plan highlighted a joint decision process between New Zealand’s government and the Indigenous Māori population (Ministry for the Environment, 2022).

Storm surge barrier, 2018

About the Author

Karis Hudson is from Lake Placid, NY and graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2025 with a combined major in Environmental Studies and Government. She produced her webpage as a project for Jon Rosales's "Adapting to Climate Change" course in Spring 2023. Studying abroad in Spring 2024 in New Zealand, she chose this case study as a way to further her knowledge of the area and the key hazards it faces from climate change. Recognizing the importance of highlighting disadvantaged populations' position in relation to climate change, she chose the Native Maori as the community at risk. 

Lisa Randall, 2023


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Bell, R. G. (2018). Impacts of severe weather: Chasing resilience for NZ: Submission to the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Select Committee, Parliament. National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research Ltd.

Bell, R., & Hannah, J. (2019). Update to 2018 of the annual MSL series and trends around New Zealand. NIWA.

Bennett, H., Jones, R., Keating, G., Woodward, A., Hales, S., & Metcalfe, S. (2014). Health and equity impacts of climate change in Aotearoa- New Zealand, and health gains from climate action. New Zealand Medical Journal, 127(1406).

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Frame, D., Rosier, S., Carey-Smith, T., Harrington, L., Dean, S., & Noy, I. (2018). Estimating financial costs of climate change in New Zealand. New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute and NIWA.

Frederikse, T., Landerer, F., Caron, L., Adhikari, S., Parkes, D., Humphrey, V. W., Dangendorf, S., Hogarth, P., Zanna, L., Cheng, L., & Wu, Y.-H. (2020). The causes of sea-level rise since 1900. Nature, 584(7821), Article 7821.

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Hicks, D. M. (1991). Impacts of Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise on New Zealand’s Coast. Weather and Climate, 11(2), 124–127.

IPCC. (2022). Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Jones, R., Bennett, H., Keating, G., & Blaiklock, A. (2014). Climate Change and the Right to Health for Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Health and Human Rights, 16(1), 54–68.

Malhi, Y., Franklin, J., Seddon, N., Solan, M., Turner, M. G., Field, C. B., & Knowlton, N. (2020). Climate change and ecosystems: Threats, opportunities and solutions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 375(1794), 20190104.

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Ministry for the Environment. (2022). Aotearoa New Zealand’s first national adaptation plan. Wellington. Ministry for the Environment.

Smith, H., Allan, P., Bryant, M., Hardy, D., Manning, M., Patterson, M., Poutama, M., Richards, A., Richardson, J., & Spinks, A. (2017). Adaptation Strategies to Address Climate Change Impacts on Coastal Māori Communities in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Case Study of Dairy Farming in the Horowhenua- Kāpiti Coastal Zone. Horowhenue Coastal Climate Change Project Research Team, 85.

Tausía, J., Delaux, S., Camus, P., Rueda, A., Méndez, F., Bryan, K. R., Pérez, J., Costa, C. G. R., Zyngfogel, R., & Cofiño, A. (2023). Rapid response data-driven reconstructions for storm surge around New Zealand. Applied Ocean Research, 133, 103496.

Photo References

Bertknot. (2018). Storm surge barrier [Photo].

Capper, P. (2008). Waikato River flood near Glen Murray, New Zealand [Photograph] 

Capper, P. (2006). Waverly Beach, Taranaki, New Zealand [Photograph] Creativecommons.org

Hoch, J. (2012). Golden Bay, New Zealand [Photo].

Horner, C. (2018). Lake Pukaki, New Zealand [Photograph].

Kelland, E. (2011). Sand dune protection sign at Spencer Park, Christchurch, New Zealand. Own work.,_New_Zealand.jpg

Lisk, B. (2017). Kaikoura, New Zealand [Photograph].

Royan, J. (2006). New Zealand Maori rowing ceremonial choreography [Photograph].

Vardion. (2008). Maori Population Percentage [Map].

Zealand, A. N. (1986). Timaru District Floods, 1986 [Photo].

Zimmermann, W. (2019). Wellignton, New Zealand [Photograph].