Position: Principal Scientist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Hamilton
Field: Coastal and estuarine research
Dr Rob Bell is a research scientist at NIWA in Hamilton. He studies ocean waves, including storm surges and tsunamis, and has a particular interest in sea-level changes. He is also a member of the Tsunami Experts Panel, which provides advice when there is a tsunami threat to New Zealand.
Growing up in a small coastal town and playing in a river mouth and along the coast, he began to take a real interest in the ever-changing sea. Also, his town was evacuated up the nearby hill in 1960 in the wake of the Chile tsunami that hit New Zealand.
At high school, he loved maths (inspired by an excellent teacher who gently pushed him), geography and science subjects, especially physics. He wanted to do a mixture of science and something more hands-on – applying science to problems. “My science teacher, who had a professional engineering degree, advised me to undertake a civil engineering degree at University, which was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” says Rob.
Rob has been able to pursue a career in coastal research and hands-on consulting work for clients, covering topics such as tides, tsunamis, storm surges and climate effects.
it has been a real buzz to be able to undertake sea-level research and see it right through to being woven into council policy and plans
One of his research highlights was identifying the effect on sea levels of long-term variations in the climate, such as seasonal cycles and the 2–4 year El Niño/La Niña cycle. Sea levels can vary up or down by 25 cm in response to these climate effects, so it is important enough to include in coastal hazard planning.
“Early on in my career, we didn’t have access to good-quality sea-level data, so a colleague and I set up a national network of sea-level gauges from 1994 onwards. This network has also captured several tsunami and storm-surge events.”
Rob’s understanding of tsunami wave behaviour has come from analysing data from the sea-level network and from personal observations of the devastating impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. “I was fortunate to be selected as the tsunami wave expert on a team to Thailand sponsored by the Earthquake Commission – seeing first-hand the impact of 14 m-high waves at Khao Lak was a very sobering experience.”
Lately, Rob has focused his research on sea-level rise and climate change effects. Through a contract with the Ministry for the Environment, he and colleague Doug Ramsay put together a guidance manual for local government on managing coastal hazards and how to incorporate climate change into planning and engineering design. He toured the country in 2009 holding workshops with councils, planners and engineers to upskill them in using the new guidance manual.
“So, while I live and work in land-locked Hamilton (which is, by the way, 100% guaranteed safe from coastal hazards!), the Waikato region does have two seaboards to the west and east. Parts of these coasts are under some pressure from ‘coastal squeeze’ where development has been built too close to the sea.” Rob has been working in a team with the Whitianga community on their coastal hazards and how the community might respond to climate change.
Nature of science
The quality of scientific data is heavily dependent on the instruments that are used to collect it. Rob has had an important role in establishing a network of sea-level gauges around the New Zealand coast. He has since been able to use data from these gauges in his work on tsunamis.
“Overall, for me personally, it has been a real buzz to be able to undertake sea-level research and see it right through to being woven into council policy and plans and to then observe practitioners applying it in their day-to-day work as they plan for the future.” Rob is passionate about sharing knowledge and passing on skills to the next generation.
In addition to his work at NIWA, Rob is also the co-leader of the Resilience Challenge Coastal programme under the National Science Challenge Resilience to Nature's Challenges.
In 2019 he was part of the team that won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Prize as part of the ‘Melting Ice and Rising Seas’ project. This team was made up of over 20 people, comprising geologists, glaciologists, climate and social scientists from Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington, GNS Science and NIWA. It was also in 2019 that Rob was appointed as one of the science leaders of the first National Climate Change Risk Assessment (NCCRA) project for Aotearoa.
In 2020 Rob was made a fellow of Engineering New Zealand, joining a select group of outstanding engineers have been recognised as leaders by their peers, making a significant contribution to engineering. Later in that year he was awarded a Kudos Lifetime Achievement Award for his work, see this video on YouTube here to find out more about his work and what inspires him.
This article is based on information current in 2011 and 2021.