Raetihi wahine leads mātauranga Māori outreach for solar tsunami programme

By Jessica Tyson

Toni Hoeta, from Raetihi, has just landed her dream job at Otago Museum leading the new solar tsunami programme’s outreach to Māori throughout Aotearoa.

The Solar Tsunami programme launched last weekend when Hoeta and others flew from Christchurch over the southern ocean towards Antarctica, to view the Aurora Australis or southern lights caused by solar tsunamis. 

“The programme itself is headed by our friend Professor Craig Rodgers at the University of Otago. It’s about how the sun interacts with the earth, specifically the solar flares. On a beautiful, less dangerous scale they cause the aurora.”

As the science engagement co-ordinator Māori for the programme, Hoeta’s role is about educating the public, especially iwi, while grounding it in mātauranga Māori.

“We’re going to take the science to them because our ancestors were observational scientists, recorded everything through our waiata, our haka, our kōrero," she says.

“It affects all New Zealanders but our history of already being scientists is the important part.”

The Aurora Australis seen from  the aircraft window

Solar tsunamis

A solar tsunami is a large-scale solar corona shock wave generated by solar flares. Hoeta says, on a more dangerous scale, the solar flares could cause a large hit of charge particles to interact with the earth’s magnetic field.

“They could get into the magnetic field and disrupt the electrical grid of New Zealand. So part of this project is finding a way to mitigate this intense process so that we are prepared for the effects of it.”

Hoeta says the charge particles could get into the atmosphere and melt power transformers, thus causing a power outage. Therefore anything that relies on electricity would turn off such as lights, phones, hot showers and toilets that require electricity to flush.

“We’re so reliant on electricity these days that pretty much we’d go back to the old ages,” she says.

Hoeta, of Ngāti Rangi, Atihaunui-a-pāpārangi, Ngāti Porou and Te Atiawa, says the last solar tsunami reached the world in 1859.

“The 1859 one caused all the telegraphs to go out. Lucky back then that was the only thing we used with electricity. So that’s what New Zealand wants to get prepared for, get one step ahead of the world as we have with Covid and prepare our power systems and our transformers, maybe perhaps shut it off for a day, have the solar tsunami come through, hit the earth and have our power grids safe.”

Hoeta says scientists aren't sure when a solar tsunami could next hit.

"This is just the beginning of the project. We’ll find out as the years go on and then we’ll communicate that to the public."

Mātauranga Māori

Hoeta says Māori don’t have stories about solar tsunamis in particular but do have stories about the aurora or solar flares.

“They called it Ngā Kahukura o Hine Nui Te Po, the rainbow of the goddess of darkness.”

There’s also the story Tahu-nui-arangi, well known to the people of Whanganui, she says.

“He talked about our ancestors going all the way south and then going and finding a land of ice and then they got stuck there. So in order to call back to their Northmen, they lit fires and that’s what the aurora represents – those fires our ancestors lit.”

Proud whānau

Hoeta grew up in Raetihi in the middle of the North Island, at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. She is 23 years old and studied Anatomy and Neuroscience at The University of Otago.

“I did my undergraduate degree, a postgraduate diploma and a Master of Science, all majoring in anatomy with neuroscience elements. But I love all things Science and I love my culture so when the Otago Museum had a job advertised that was science engagement co-ordinator Māori I jumped at the opportunity.”

Hoeta was one month from finishing her Masters when she found the job advertised.

“I couldn’t believe it - science, Māori, engaging the public and getting tamariki excited about Science – that’s my dream job! I interviewed and I got the job!”

She says getting the job was a huge deal for her and her whānau.

“They’re all so excited and proud, she says.

“Being from such a small town everyone knows everyone, and they all support me 100 percent. I’ll go home and have whānau everywhere telling me how proud they are and younger cousins or children my mum teaches tell me how they want to study science when they’re older.”