By John Kerr 14/11/2016


In the aftermath of this morning’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake there has been a solid effort by researchers and authorities to provide timely information to an understandably worried New Zealand public.

The most up-to-date source of information on the situation is GeoNet, which is providing updates on aftershock sequences and likelihood estimates of future scenarios. In the most recent news update on the GeoNet site, Sara McBride gives the following breakdown of what we know.

This earthquake was the largest recorded in New Zealand since the M7.8 Dusky Sound earthquake in 2009. But, given its location, it was more widely felt and more damaging. This earthquake unsettled many people and that is perfectly normal; earthquakes can be upsetting events. The best advice we have is to be prepared for earthquakes. 

We can say one thing with certainty: there will be more earthquakes to come in this area.

Two earthquakes, not one

It looks like we’ve got two separate but related quakes going on. Our reports indicate that the combination of these two quakes lasted two minutes, with the most severe shaking at around 50 seconds. It was widely felt throughout both the North and South Islands. It looks like one was a strike-slip and the other was a thrust fault.

Further, we have received many aftershocks since the start of the quake. We are currently working to assess each of these but it may take some time.

Read the full GeoNet post for more information, including aftershock probabilities and specific details about this morning’s quake.

An earlier national tsunami warning from the Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management has now been cancelled, although a warning remains:

Based on all available data, the tsunami threat has now passed. However, coasts may still experience unusual, strong currents and sea level fluctuations lasting for several more hours. People are advised to stay vigilant in and around coastal waters.

Expert reaction from around the globe

The Australian Science Media Centre has collected a wide range of expert commentary from the international research community (originally posted on Scimex.org):

[Please note magnitude estimates have changed over the day as more data are included in analyses]

Dr. Mark C. Quigley is Associate Professor in Active Tectonics and Geomorphology at the School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

“Preliminary data suggest that this is a structurally complicated earthquake, involving a mixture of reverse faults that thrust the northern South Island up over the Pacific Plate, and strike-slip faults, which slid northern crustal blocks sideways and towards the northeast relative to their southern counterparts.

The majority of the energy release appears to be sourced from rupture of a large fault or fault system that could be up to 200 km long and that strikes northeast and dips to the northwest, beneath the northern part of the South Island.

Due to ongoing convergence between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates, faults in this orientation accommodate a mixture of reverse faulting and strike-slip. Because of the large size of the fault, and the initial interpretation that the rupture started at the southwest end of the fault and propagated to the northeast, the seismic energy was released over a period of up to 2 minutes.

In Christchurch, the shaking felt quite different to the fatal 2011 Christchurch earthquake, which had a tremendous amount of high frequency energy and very strong ground accelerations; this most recent earthquake would have been dominated by lower frequency shaking manifested as a ‘rolling-type’ ground motion felt for up to 1-2 minutes.

This earthquake has triggered liquefaction in coastal areas and in susceptible sediments, and landsliding along steep susceptible cliffs in the northern South Island. For an earthquake of M 7.5-7.8, several large aftershocks (magnitude >6) are expected, and for each magnitude 6 aftershock we expect 10 more magnitude 5 aftershocks over the coming days and weeks.

This region has been one of the most seismically active in New Zealand over the last few years, including magnitude 6.5 and 6.5 earthquakes that occurred as part of the Cook Strait earthquake sequence in 2013; it is likely that these sequences are related given their close spatial and temporal association.”

Professor Sandy Steacy is Head of the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Adelaide

“The M=7.8 New Zealand earthquake occurred in an area of high seismic hazard in the northern part of the South Island.

The rupture started about 90 km north of Christchurch and caused slip on a fault (or faults) extending about 150 km to the northeast. According to the USGS, the largest slip was near the town of Seddon, which also experienced shaking during the Cook Strait earthquake sequence of 2013. Large aftershocks have occurred in the region and are likely to continue for days or weeks. They may cause further damage to already weakened structures and/or additional landslides.”

Dr Behzad Fatahi is Senior Lecturer of Geotechnical and Earthquake Engineering at the Centre for Built Infrastructure Research, University of Technology Sydney (UTS)

“A magnitude 7.8 earthquake at a shallow depth of 23km below the ground surface and 53km toward north of Amberley occurred in North Canterbury in New Zealand on November 13, 2016 at 11:02:56 UTC.

This earthquake was the results of very complex tectonic activities between Australian and Pacific Plates colliding under New Zealand (approximately 30-60 mm/year of relative movement between tectonic plates). The complexity of fault lines and tectonic activities is due to the fact that tectonic plates in some locations such as east of the North Island move toward each (creating compressive stresses), and in some other regions such as South Island slide past each other (generating shear stresses), both creating shallow earthquakes.

Let’s remember series of devastating earthquakes in the last 6 years in the same region including Christchurch earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011 directly beneath City of Christchurch. It should be noted that due to the complexity of plate boundaries in this area, particularly different orientation of fault lines, it is very likely that several fault lines are activated in one earthquake.

It is foreseen that due to the main earthquake and follow up aftershocks, as a result of liquefaction of soil, significant damage to transport infrastructure mainly roads, and lifelines including water and sewage, oil and gas distribution pipelines, may happen. Indeed, although liquefaction of loose materials may happen well below the ground surface, it can be manifested as the ground surface subsidence. Furthermore, considering the terrain in this region in New Zealand, serious rock falls and landslides may happen within the radius of 100km away from the epicentre of this earthquake (even coastal cliffs) and authorities should make assessment of slopes before letting people back in the affected areas. Indeed, aftershocks can further degrade the weakened slopes and cause landslides deteriorating the condition.

Furthermore, Seiche (standing wave in an enclosed or partially enclosed body of water; different to Tsunami) may happend at great distance from the earthquake source in lakes such as  lake Sumner, lake Brunner and lake Poerua or even much further away from the epicentre, such as Lake Wanaka in South Island, due to this earthquake and its aftershocks. Tourists and travellers should be warned about this and let’s not forget The 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Alaska that produced damaging waves up to 2m high in lakes.”

Dr Paul Somerville is Chief Geoscientist at Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University

“This was a very large earthquake that occurred near the interface between the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate.

Although as far as we know it did not occur on that plate interface, which is named the Hikurangi Subduction Zone, the direction of slip on the faults involved in this earthquake is similar to what is expected from earthquakes on the Hikurangi Subduction Zone, which underlies Wellington.

It is important to understand the implications of this earthquake for the potential triggering of earthquakes on the Hihurangi Subduction zone and other faults in the region around Wellington.”

Kevin McCue is an adjunct professor at CQUniversity, President of the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society and Director of the Australian Seismological Centre

“Yet another major NZ earthquake not on the Alpine Fault system or any known major mapped faults in the region marking the Pacific and Australian Plate margin.

The consequent stress loading on the Alpine fault may be bringing it closer to failure and a magnitude 8 earthquake on the Wellington Fault must be in the minds of NZ emergency management, the worst case scenario.

On the positive side, not many casualties and seemingly only one building collapse in this recent earthquake, that an old unreinforced concrete building. Landsliding onto the coastal railway and highway to be expected given the terrain.

The reported tsunami is a puzzle given the earthquake was under the land, it would be useful to see the tide gauge record to confirm it was a tsunami and not just a drawdown of the sea level.

The seismicity of NZ is going through an active phase, and in Australia too where there have been 3 times the expected number of magnitude 5+ earthquakes in the last 2 years, including one M6.2 earthquake along the NT/SA border, almost a one in ten year earthquake.”

Kevin Furlong is Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, USA

“The 13 November 2016 Magnitude 7.8 earthquake occurred in northern South Island, New Zealand.

This earthquake shows evidence of complex rupture history. Its rupture area straddles a major plate boundary transition between a region (to the north) where the Pacific Plate is subducting beneath the Australia Plate, at the Hikurangi Subduction zone, and a region to the south where the Pacific and Australia plates move past each other on or near the Earth’s surface along the Alpine Fault and Marlborough Faults plate boundary system.

This earthquake initiated within the Pacific plate south of this transition and ruptured northward crossing over to the subduction zone. Analyses of seismic moment release (a measure of the energy of the earthquake) show that the major moment release occurred along the northern segment where the rupture potentially occurred on the plate boundary interface.

The transition in plate boundary style, where this earthquake occurred, contains numerous faults with a wide range of orientations. The main rupture and aftershocks may exploit this complicated tectonic zone resulting in a range of earthquake mechanisms for the aftershocks and in comparison to the main earthquake.”

James Goff is Director of the Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory, University of New South Wales

“The Magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck some 70 km north of Christchurch today has had a devastating impact on the NE part of New Zealand’s South Island.

The tourist town of Kaikoura is effectively cut off as numerous landslides have blocked road and train access, but it also appears that the small tsunami generated by this event was largest in that area as well.

New Zealand sits astride the boundary between the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates and as such experiences numerous earthquakes. Recent events in 2010 and 2011 around Christchurch have now been followed by this most recent one.

The earthquake struck just to the south of New Zealand’s most active fault – the Hope fault – and seismologists are still unsure as to whether it was one or two faults that moved, but there have been many large aftershocks as well.

Yet again, New Zealand’s earthquakes are proving to be anything but easy to understand.

In addition, it is always difficult to know exactly what type of tsunami warning to issue as a result of such an event – a relatively “small” earthquake for tsunami generation and near but not at the coast.

As far as we know at the moment the resultant tsunami was generally small and may have only had a local impact around Kaikoura. The tsunami warning was regional though and populations, highly sensitised to earthquakes, responded well to evacuation advice. However, the worry is now that since there was little or no visible tsunami for much of the region – will this be seen as a false alarm and how will people respond next time?

Large aftershocks continue, with the latest – a Magnitude 6.8 – generating yet another tsunami information statement from the warning centres.

While the earthquake itself may not generate a tsunami, it is quite possible that large local tsunamis can be generated by earthquake groundshaking causing submarine landslides offshore. The Kaikoura Canyon, close to Kaikoura’s coast is just such a location and it has the potential to produce a devastating tsunami for an area already badly affected by the earlier earthquake.”