For many years, retired scientist David Kear was the Beacon newspaper’s go-to person for any stories concerning global warming, earthquakes and more. He lived in Ohope for more than 35 years and became well known within the community when he disputed Whakatane
District Council’s plans for hazard zones to restrict coastal development. David loudly rejected the widely-held view that predicted sea level rise caused by climate change posed threats to Ohope and Whakatane, saying geological processes meant coastal areas of the district were rising. He died in Auckland last month at the age of 95, having contributed expert opinion and letters to the Beacon up until the age of 90. One of his colleagues, Simon Nathan, has written this obituary with input from David’s children.
GEOLOGIST David Kear was seconded to the New Zealand Steel Investigating Company in 1960 with a seemingly impossible task – to find a large, high-grade deposit of iron sand in the Auckland region that was close to transport.
Earlier surveys had been unsuccessful, but within three days he had located the deposit at Waikato North Head that is now mined, based on his knowledge of the area’s geology. This was only one of several major contributions David made to the knowledge and utilisation of New Zealand’s mineral resources.
Born in London, David was educated at Sevenoaks School in Kent. Awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Mines at Imperial College, he undertook degrees in mining engineering and geology, including several months’ practical experience in South Wales coal mines. He later said this convinced him he did not want to spend his life working underground.
He spent the latter part of the war and its aftermath, from 1944-47, in the Royal Navy. During this period he served on a number of ships including HMNZS Archilles, visiting Australia and New Zealand. Returning to Imperial College to complete his degrees, he applied for a job he saw advertised with the New Zealand Geological Survey. Before leaving England he married Joan Bridges, a fellow student at Imperial College, and they spent their honeymoon on the five-week sea voyage to New Zealand.
When the Kears arrived in New Zealand late in 1948, there was a major post-war energy shortage, and much of the work of the geological survey was concentrated on coalfield investigations. After a year based in Greymouth, Kear was transferred to Ngaruawahia to investigate the Waikato coalfields in conjunction with geologists Jim Schofield and Barry Waterhouse.
It was the start of a highly productive scientific period when David produced many reports, maps and publications. He was also appointed district geologist, and throughout his career he always had administrative responsibilities, which he carried out efficiently.
Initial investigations at Ngaruawahia focused on detailed mapping of the Waikato coalfields and estimation of coal resources, and David was always proud that this work provided the basis for the Meremere and Huntly power stations. In 1956 he spent three months undertaking a reconnaissance survey of Western Samoa, aimed at locating groundwater resources. Over the years he returned to Samoa many times to assist with groundwater investigations.
In addition to these and other activities, he enrolled for an external PhD from the University of London, and spent many weekends and holidays studying the geology of the Te Akau area, west of Hamilton. He returned to London to present his thesis in 1963.
In 1958, David was transferred to Auckland, where he was again district geologist. He undertook a variety of investigations in the upper North Island, including work for the steel investigating company. In later years, he recalled finding a site for the steel works was more challenging than finding the ore.
Most sites in the Waikato valley were unsuitable because of peaty foundations, and the current Glenbrook mill is sited on ancient lava flows.
In 1965, David was appointed chief economic geologist, responsible for all economic and applied geology within the geological survey and the Kear family moved from Auckland to Lower Hutt. Two years later, Kear was appointed as director of the geological survey, and in 1973 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
The following decade was a period of general prosperity and economic development. Kear was responsible for setting up groups focusing on applied geology, including engineering geology, earth deformation and petroleum exploration.
In 1974, David was appointed assistant director-general of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and in 1980 he became director-general, responsible for a large and diverse scientific organisation.
In conversation after his retirement, he recalled that this was a complete change in direction and he was suddenly dealing with issues that had never concerned him previously.
For example, one of his first tasks was to represent the department at the hearings of the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power, which involved a crash course in the scientific issues involved.
The period he spent at the department’s head office coincided with a series of energy crises in the 1970s and 80s. This led to the “Think Big” projects developed by the Muldoon government under energy minister Bill Birch, most of which required scientific input and evaluation.
David played a leading role in the formation of Petrocorp, the state-owned exploration company, leading to the discovery of oil at the McKee field. This was particularly satisfying to the local geological community, as the oil companies up to that time had maintained that New Zealand was a gas province, and therefore not worth exploring for oil.
Although David was working effectively as a senior departmental head, he reached the compulsory public service retirement age of 60 in 1983. It was a waste of a competent administrator, but he commented a decade later that he had few regrets, especially as he escaped the impact of major government restructuring in the late 1980s and 1990s. In the 1983 Queen’s Birthday Honours, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.
Joan and David had already decided that they would retire to Ohope, the beach suburb of Whakatane, where they built a home they lived in for the next 30 years. David continued to do some consulting work including several United Nations roles, both in New Zealand and overseas for a few years, and he and Joan entered fully into the life of their community.
For example, they were foundation members of the Whakatane Probus Club and Friends of the Whakatane Museum. David wrote a number of articles on geology in the Eastern Bay for a non-technical audience. In later years he became sceptical of the evidence for anthropogenic global warming. He also completed a substantial document recording the ancestry of the Kear family.
Joan died in 2013. David continued to live at Ohope until early 2018, before moving into nursing care at Mercy Parklands in Auckland, close to some of his family.
His daughter, Susan Shaw, commented that David enjoyed happy memories from his “lucky life” (as he put it) that were recorded in a continuous slide show set up his room that reminded him of the many people, places, activities and events that shaped his life.