Understanding local weather and climate using Maori environmental knowledge

From left to right: Apanui Skipper, Te Hiringānuku Ngāmane, and Darren King. (Photo: Pat Ngamane)

Darren, Apanui, Bill (Wīremu) Tawhai, Mere Roberts, Weno Iti, and Liliana Clarke. (Photo: Leona Stirling)

Click for enlargement and names.

Darren King and Apanui Skipper have recorded and compiled traditional knowledge held by two North Island iwi.

Climate has always been important for Māori. It influences which plants, trees, and birds are found in various parts of the country; it affects the winds, waves, and ocean currents, and, in turn, influences decisions about when to plant, harvest, and fish, and about navigation. Over the centuries Māori have built up extensive knowledge about local weather and climate. This has been vital to survival, and the lessons learnt have been incorporated into traditional and modern practices of agriculture, fishing, medicine, education, and conservation.

Learning about this knowledge contributes to better understanding local weather and climate change – including how Māori have adjusted to variability in the past. It also provides clues on how to build resilience into adaptation strategies for the future. Te Kūwaha o Taihoro Nukurangi, NIWA’s Māori Research and Development Unit, recently completed a pilot programme to examine and document Māori environmental knowledge (MEK) of weather and climate in the east of the North Island of New Zealand.

We talked with elders from North Island tribal groups Ngāti Pare and Te Whānau a Apanui about their knowledge of local weather and climate. Traditionally, this knowledge was passed from one generation to another – stored within people’s memories, and expressed through local histories, practices, and language. This body of knowledge incorporates a number of ways of knowing, being, and learning about the world – from the influence of the original Polynesian explorers to the arrival and settlement of Europeans and beyond. Through semi-structured interviews with the elders, three principal strands of weather and climate knowledge were revealed.

Naming and classifying local phenomena

The first strand of MEK includes an extensive use of local weather and climate terminology to define the clouds, the direction of local winds, and different styles of rainfall. Elders from Te Whānau a Apanui shared a long list of local words to describe different styles of rainfall – from severe rain to light misty conditions. Local weather and climate nomenclature was also captured in local place names and the division of the seasons. For example, Te Whānau a Apanui have long held that six seasons characterise their local climate. These names and classifications represent an acute awareness of local weather phenomena, and ultimately help to make decisions about the timing, safety, and viability of various activities.

Recording events and trends in oral histories

The second strand of knowledge represents a valuable source of information on past weather and climate conditions in New Zealand. Incorporated into stories, songs, and family histories, knowledge of this kind can provide detailed observations of natural phenomena over many lifetimes and in all seasons. For example, Ngāti Pare have noted that there are now fewer frosts across their tribal boundaries, as well as an increase in the number and severity of storms. Their observations of local weather and climate variability are consistent with the oral histories recorded by other Māori across New Zealand.

Using environmental indicators to forecast

Environmental indicators were widely used by Ngāti Pare and Te Whānau a Apanui to forecast and predict changes in weather and climate. We have compiled tables that document some of the local indicators traditionally used by these iwi to manage activities linked with changes in weather and climate. While the indicators are most useful in their respective localities, many are shared by different iwi in other places. Note that many of these indicators were often used together to predict changes in the weather and climate. This approach to climate forecasting is similar to forecasting methods of Western science, which rely on consensus among different computer models to forecast changes in climate.

Name Indicator Expected outcome Iwi / Region
Kākā (Native parrot) Kākā begin acting up, twisting and squawking above the forest A storm is on its way Ngāti Pare
Koekoeā (Long-tailed cuckoo) The koekoeā returns Improved weather is on the way Ngāti Pare
Moehau (Mt Moehau) The shapes and colours of clouds above and below Moehau Rainfall, winds (calm periods, squalls) and snow Ngāti Pare
Ngā ngaru (Waves) The sound of waves hitting local rocks Rough or calm weather conditions are expected Te Whānau a Apanui
Pareārau (Jupiter) The shimmer of Pareārau is light and misty A wet month follows Te Whānau a Apanui
Pīpīwharauroa (Shining cuckoo) The return of pīpīwharauroa The beginning of warmer weather Ngāti Pare
Pōānganga (Clematis) Periodic blooming A warm season lies ahead with gentle breezes Te Whānau a Apanui
Ruru (Morepork) The shrill cries of more than one ruru can be heard at night Rainfall is approaching Ngāti Pare
Tihirau (Mt Tihirau) The clouds in the sky above Tihirau Approaching rainfall or storm Te Whānau a Apanui
Whakaari (White Island) 1. The plume lies to the left
2. The plume is stretched intact across the horizon
1. Rainfall expected
2. Fair weather is expected
Te Whānau a Apanui

Tables compiled from the project have also been made into an educational poster. Posters cost $20.00 each.

MEK and Western science

While climate-forecasting models have demonstrated significant skill and continue to improve, the insights from MEK offer opportunities to enhance scientific capacity and meet the challenges of future weather and climate variability and change. The three strands of knowledge revealed in this programme show significant convergence with Western scientific understanding of weather and climate. This common ground provides a basis to bring together MEK with Western science and, therein, opportunities to generate new understanding of local climate variability and change. We believe that scientists can benefit from MEK, just as Māori can gain insight about the atmosphere from the latest scientific information.

Teachers’ resource for NCEA AS: Geography 90204 (1.3)
Māori Level 1 US6139, US19671, Level 3 US6147
Science Level 1 US18981. See other curriculum connections at www.niwa.co.nz/pubs/wa/resources