Shaken and stirred: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011

By Gareth Renowden 23/02/2011


It’s a grim day in Canterbury. 75 people are confirmed dead and 300 are missing following the magnitude 6.3 earthquake which struck at 12-51pm yesterday. As I write, teams of urban search and rescue specialists from NZ and Australia (soon to be joined by teams from all over the world) are crawling over collapsed buildings throughout the central city. The cathedral (above) has lost its spire, and there are bodies in the rubble around it. I am glad to report that my family and friends, and that of Climate Show co-host Glenn Williams are well, but no-one is untouched by this terrible disaster. Up here in Waipara the initial shaking was bad enough to make us run outdoors, but our relief at escaping damage was immediately tempered by the realisation that someone had just taken a hammering…

For an inkling of the scale of this tragedy and its impact on people who had already survived a magnitude 7.1, but much less damaging, quake last September, I commend author David Haywood’s eloquent description in the Guardian, and Press journalist Vicki Anderson’s heartfelt story of her escape from the Press building (under the cranes in the picture above). US-based NZ climate scientist Kevin Trenberth was also in town, holidaying with his family. This is his account:

Where we were [hillside suburb of Mt Pleasant] was actually the epicentre of the earthquake, which occurred at 9 minutes to 1p.m. We immediately got under the dining room table. The quake was very sharp and the whole ground bucked and heaved. It was very shallow and the devastation was immediate. Everything came off the walls, the china cabinet and all the crystal, nearby crashed around us. In the kitchen, 2m away, the cupboards emptied, the built-in wall oven crashed onto the floor followed by the built-in microwave. Then the big refrigerator with bottom freezer fell on top of all that. Broken glass everywhere. In the room we were in, there were 6 mm plate glass windows that were smashed, and likewise in the adjacent living room. But the house held in front. Not so in the back. The back wall was bricked and had a French door: the wall collapsed and the door jerked out and away from the house so it is wide open (and thus open to looters). The adjacent walls were half brick and they too were wiped out.

Banks of rocks and solid ground near the house collapsed and made it difficult to get out. The road outside had a big crack and the sidewalk dropped 20 cm relative to the road and a gap opened 8 cm wide. The water main broke just above there and water cascaded down past the front of the house, making it a wet experience getting to my rental car, which was OK.

Trenberth spent today in Christchurch helping the rescue effort, along with many, many others. You can get some idea of the size of this event by looking at aerial pictures taken by the NZ defence forces: aside from the building damage in the central city, extensive damage has occurred in many suburbs and soil liquefaction and flooding is affecting tens of thousands of homes. Power is out in 50 per cent of the city, and the mayor has described the water and sewer systems as “trashed”. Recovery is going to take a very long time, but recover and rebuild we will.

I would urge anyone with spare cash to make a donation to the various appeals that are running — there’s a full list here, and the NZ Red Cross is calling for donations (link was down at time of writing). [Update: see NZ based donation service at bottom of article — 100% of monies will go to ChCh mayoral fund.]

Earth science geeks will want to check out the Christchurch Quake Map here (link takes you to last seven days — use the drop down to select Feb 22) for a remarkable visualisation of the earthquake sequence we’ve been experiencing, and the Highly Allochthonous blog has an excellent description of the tectonics of the quake here. It also worth noting that the quake caused a major calving event on the Tasman Glacier lake near Mt Cook. An estimated 30 million tons of ice broke off the glacier tongue when the quake hit.

I hope that Hot Topic readers will understand if my contributions to the site are somewhat disrupted over coming weeks. My focus will be elsewhere, and at the moment it’s very difficult to take the future for granted. A lesson for us all there, perhaps?

Update: this amazing picture of the clouds of dust rising from the city moments after the quake hit looks to have been taken from one of the hill suburbs. Hat tip to @georgedarroch on Twitter, photographer unknown*. Click for full size.

Dusttodust small

*[Edited incorrect photo attribution]