1.1 Physical features
New Zealand lies in the south-west Pacific Ocean and comprises two main and a number of smaller islands. Their combined area of 270,500 sq km is similar to the size of Japan or the British Isles.
The main North and South Islands are separated by Cook Strait, which at its narrowest point is 20 km wide. The administrative boundaries of New Zealand extend from 33° to 53° south latitude, and from 160° east to 173° west longitude.
1.1 Land area of New Zealand, 1998(1)
Size (sq km)
|North Island |
|Offshore islands (2)|
| Total |
Source: Land Information New Zealand
|(1) Includes all internal waterways (lakes and rivers). |
(2) Includes all offshore islands 20 sq km or larger, except those listed separately.
New Zealand is more than 1,600 km long and 450 km wide at its widest part. In the North Island the main ranges run generally north-east to south-west. A massive mountain chain, the Southern Alps, runs almost the length of the South Island. There are many outlying ranges to the Southern Alps in the north, and the south-west of the South Island.
The highest mountain is Mt Cook (3,754 m). The longest river is the Waikato (425 km) and the largest lake is Lake Taupo (606 sq km).
1.2 Geology and soils
New Zealand is in an area of the world characterised by active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. The boundary between the Indo-Australian plate and the Pacific plate runs through New Zealand.
Almost three-quarters of New Zealand is covered by sedimentary rocks. The most common forms are sandstone, mudstone, greywacke, conglomerate and limestone. Other rock types are metamorphic rocks (schist, gneiss and marble), intrusive igneous rocks (granite, gabbro, diorite and serpentine) and volcanic rocks (basalt, andesite, rhyolite and ignimbrite).
Regional land usage
1.2 Classification of New Zealand land usage
|Region||Vegetation and land use|
|North Auckland Peninsula and Auckland region||Patchy land use. Exotic forests on sand country and remnant kauri forest on uplands. Intensive dairying on rolling lands around Kaipara Harbour, Whangarei, Kaikohe and Dargaville. Sheep and beef on hill country.|
|Bay of Plenty-Waikato-Thames-Hauraki Plains||Intensively-farmed dairying region. Much of better dairying land in Bay of Plenty established on kiwifruit and subtropical horticulture. Maize cropping in Waikato Basin.|
|Volcanic Plateau||Important watershed with large areas protected as native forest. Extensive exotic forests. Topdressing of former scrub areas with trace elements has allowed widespread farming.|
|East Coast-Wairarapa||Semi-extensive sheep farming (wool and store sheep) on dry hill country. Intensive lamb production on flat to rolling plains. Market gardens and orchards near Gisborne, Napier, and Hastings. Important pip-fruit production. Vineyards. Pockets of dairying close to main ranges from Norsewood south.|
|Taranaki||Distinct contrast between intensive dairying on ring plain, and severely eroded inland hill country, with many steep ridges covered in second-growth forest or dense gorse.|
|Manawatu-Horowhenua||Intensive sheep production and cropping on the terrace country; semi-intensive sheep and beef in hill country of Rangitikei. Exotic forestry on coastal sand country.|
|Marlborough Sounds-Nelson||Intensive orcharding and market gardens. Exotic forests in Marlborough Sounds and Moutere Gravels.|
|Marlborough-Kaikoura Coast||Intensive sheep farming and cropping on river terraces; semi-intensive sheep and beef on hill country. Vineyards in lower Wairau Valley.|
|West Coast||Indigenous forestry declining; national parks and reserves; exotic forestry on hill country of north Westland. Dairying on river flats.|
|Canterbury||Intensive cropping for cereals and fodder crops. Intensive sheep production, with widespread irrigation of pasture.|
|Otago||Extensive sheep and beef farming in uplands. Intensive orcharding in Central Otago basins, especially for stonefruit; irrigation necessary. Market gardening in lower Taieri.|
|Southland||Semi-intensive sheep and beef farming in rolling areas inland, and intensive fattening on plains. Dairying on plains near Invercargill.|
New Zealand's topography is varied with 50 percent of the land classifiable as steep, 20 percent as moderately hilly, and 30 percent as rolling or flat. The natural vegetation ranges from kauri forest to subalpine scrub, and from tussock grassland to broadleaf forest.
Between six million and one million years ago, mountain chains were pushed up. Erosion has transformed the landscape since that time, while glaciers have carved the fiords of Fiordland and the valleys occupied by most of the South Island lakes. Volcanic activity has also shaped the landscape. The most recognisable volcanoes include Ruapehu, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, White Island and Mount Tarawera, which are active, and Mount Taranaki (or Egmont) and Rangitoto, which are considered dormant at present.
Compared with some other countries lying around the rim of the Pacific, the level of seismic activity in New Zealand is moderate. A shock of Richter magnitude 6 or above occurs on average about once a year, a shock of magnitude 7 or above once in ten years, and a shock of about magnitude 8 perhaps once a century.
The Main Seismic Region covers the whole of the North Island except Northland peninsula, and north of a line roughly passing between Banks Peninsula and Cape Foulwind in the South Island. The Southern, or Fiordland, Seismic Region includes southern Westland, western Southland, and western Otago.
Principal earthquakes in 1998
While there were no large damaging earthquakes in 1998, moderate-sized events did occur, including several in places where few earthquakes have been recorded such as on Waiheke Island, near Haast, and inland from Oamaru near Danseys Pass.
Large deep earthquakes under the North Island are relatively common. The largest of these for 1998 occurred on 21 April at a depth of 230 km, with a magnitude of just over 6.5. While located 30 km west of Taumaranui, that event was felt from Gisborne to Christchurch and across to Taranaki.
Swarms of earthquakes, ie a series of shocks with no clear mainshock, are common in New Zealand especially in volcanic regions. The most active swarm recorded in 1998 started on 25 March just south of Rotorua where 40 of the swarm earthquakes were felt.
The Earthquake Commission (EQC) engaged Works Consultancy Services (WCS) to study the worst forseeable disaster that could reasonably be anticipated within a generation. This event was a 7.5 Richter scale earthquake along the Wellington fault line within the city limits. It has a probability of occurring within the next 50 years of between 8 and 11 percent.
The climate of New Zealand is largely influenced by:
- Its location in a latitude zone where the prevailing wind flow is westerly.
- Its oceanic environment.
- Its mountains, especially the main mountain chain which modifies the weather systems.
The day-to-day weather is mostly determined by a series of anticyclones and troughs of low pressure in the westerlies. Consequently New Zealand weather is changeable, typically with short periods of a few days of settled or unsettled weather. There is a marked contrast between the climates of regions west and east of the mountains. New Zealand largely has a "marine" climate—except in Central Otago which most nearly approaches a "continental" climate (dry with hot summers and cold winters).
Weather in 1998
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) climate summary 1998: http://www.niwa.cri.nz
1.4 Wildlife and vegetation
New Zealand separated from its nearest neighbours over 80 million years ago. Some of the original inhabitants endured while other species died out, for example, coconut palms were once found in New Zealand. The pre-human community was notable for the absence of snakes, land mammals (save three species of bat) and many of the flowering plant families.
Wildlife and fauna
Whole orders and families are found only in New Zealand: tuätara, moa and kiwi, all of the native lizards, and all the native earthworms (nearly 200 species) to name just a few. Moa (11 species, some up to 3 m tall) became extinct in pre-European times, but many other large flightless birds still remain including kiwi, the nocturnal käkäpö (the only flightless parrot in the world), and weka (of the rail family). Flightless insects are numerous including many large beetles and 70 or so endemic species of the cricket-like weta.
New Zealand has the most diverse seabird fauna of any country (87 species). About 400 different marine fish are resident in the waters around New Zealand as well as various species of seal, dolphins and porpoises. Thirty-two species of whale have been recorded.
The most widespread and complex type of forest in New Zealand is a podocarp (conifer) broadleaf association. It is characterised by the variety of species, a stratified canopy and an abundance of vines and epiphytic plants. Kauri, which dominates only in the warmer climes to the north, and beech are other forest types.
A remarkable 25 percent of all New Zealand's plants can be found above the treeline. Ninety-three percent of all the alpine plants are endemic (compared with 80 percent for the rest of the higher plants). Snow tussock herb-fields are one of the most distinctive elements in this cold, windswept environment. A definitive feature of New Zealand's land-based plants and animals is their degree of specialisation and narrow habitat requirements (eg takahë/tussock grasslands; blue duck/fast flowing rivers and streams), and their evolution in the absence of mammalian predators (birds) or browsers (plants). This specialisation, and the adaptations which make New Zealand's wildlife so unique, render them extremely vulnerable to introduced predators (such as rats and cats) and competitors (such as deer and possums) and loss of habitat.
Introduced vegetation and wildlife
In the pre-1800 period following the arrival and expansion of Mäori, forest cover was reduced and some 34 species became extinct including moa, the adzebill and the flightless goose. In the much shorter post-1800 period of European settlement the area of forest was further reduced to around 25 percent of the land, 9 more birds became extinct and many more are threatened. Many new species were introduced (since 1840 over 80 species of mammal, bird and fish and more than 1,800 plant species) totally changing the landscape and ecology.
1.5 Time zone
New Zealand Standard Time (NZST) is 12 hours ahead of Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC). One hour of daylight saving, named New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT), which is 13 hours ahead of UTC, is observed from 2am (NZST) on the first Sunday in October until 2am (NZST) on the third Sunday in March. Time kept in the Chatham Islands is 45 minutes ahead of that kept in New Zealand.