New Zealand has been inhabited by humans only relatively recently but, in the last 800 years, we have made a big impact on our environment, and have altered it biologically, chemically and physically.

Our biological imprints – By introducing plants and animals, both intentionally as a food source and unintentionally as ‘stowaways’ on voyages from other lands, we have changed our environment. Many of these plants and animals have become pests and have reduced the biodiversity of our land.

Our chemical imprints – We have introduced chemicals into the environment to kill pests, fertilise our crops and as by-products of industry. Many of these chemicals are toxic to living organisms and have contaminated our soil, water and air.

Our physical imprints – By cutting down forests to increase pasture for crops, we have increased erosion and changed the appearance of the landscape. This alteration of the landscape has also had an effect on our local microclimates, with cities being warmer and plains having a higher wind flow.

Living in New Zealand, we take for granted that the air we breathe is pure, the water we drink is not going to make us sick and the soil we farm in cannot harm us. While this vision is not entirely true, we are fortunate compared to many other countries. A lot of work and important research goes into keeping us well and into reducing our impact on the environment.

Air quality

The most common form of air pollution is from particulates – small particles released from burning material. Our scientists, Dr Simon Kingham and Dr Peyman Zawar-Rezaare, are researching the link between human health and the level of particulates. Learn more about this issue in the article Air quality.

Water quality

Poor quality drinking water can cause disease outbreaks. The article Water quality highlights the importance of the catchment area and how this water is treated. Scientists at ESR are researching how best to prevent disease-causing organisms entering our drinking water and treatment methods to maintain the high quality of water we receive from our taps. 

Soil quality

Chemicals from farming and industrial practices, both past and present, and geological processes can contribute to the level of toxins in our soil. These toxic chemicals can leach into our waterways and have a detrimental effect on our fragile aquatic ecosystem. Detecting toxins in the soils can be a difficult and expensive process. Dr Ravi Gooneratne uses earthworms as an indicator of the presence of certain chemicals. The articles Soil quality, Soil contamination, Organochlorides and Bioindicators provide more details.

Take up the challenge

Student activities are a mix of hands-on experiments, web quests and debates. Explore air quality issues with Investigating air pollution and Sources and effects of air pollution. Learn about water quality with Water issues and Water pollutants on trial. Examine soil quality issues with Site clean-up and Biodegradability experiment.

Key terms

For explanations of key concepts, see Enviro-imprints – key terms.

Published 25 June 2008, Updated 10 February 2015