Five years on: the Christchurch 2011 quake

Five years on from the biggest disaster in modern New Zealand, experts share their experiences and thoughts.

Cathedral_Square_2402At 12:51 pm on the 22nd of  February, 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch. One hundred and eighty five people lost their lives in the disaster, and the damage caused has been estimated in the range tens of billions of dollars.

Five year later, as we approach the anniversary of the tragic quake, the SMC asks earthquake and disaster researchers to reflect on the event and how it has changed their field of research.

Dr Kelvin Berryman, General Manager, Natural Hazards Strategic Relationships, GNS Science, comments:

“Where are we five years on?

“The 22 February 2011 earthquake kicked off an unforeseen chain of events that will be felt for decades in New Zealand. Coming to terms with the loss of life and serious injuries, the long aftershock sequence, the multi-dimensional range of social, infrastructure, and business impacts, acting on the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Enquiry, earthquake induced liquefaction and rockfall, and the economic impact of the earthquakes, has been challenging, and I don’t have full comprehension of all of the threads and their inter-connections. So I find it an almost impossible task to summarise the last five years. But here are a few thoughts…

“The immediate days following 22 February 2011, for me, were a haze of meetings, media inquiries, working with distressed people and trying to communicate to decision makers what we knew, but also coming to terms with how much the science could not tell us. I remember sitting with my small team of passionate and often exhausted scientists in a small corner of the Christchurch Art Gallery, desperately trying to communicate the science and its implications. I am grateful to all their contributions and support during that time. I can see some of our successes and our challenges from that time reflected in what the research community is up to in 2016.

Areas of Success

“In 2015, New Zealand signed the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Sustainable Development Goals Accord, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. All of these agreements address, at least partly, natural hazard risks. The leading role that New Zealand has taken in these negotiations is, I believe, a national response to lessons from the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence.”

The Legacy: On-going and Evolving

“In the past five years we have made progress, but there is still much to do. On the science side, better definition of future earthquake, volcano, landslide, flood risk and tsunami activity and modelling future impacts and consequences of expectable events is needed. On the policy side, the review to the EQC Act, the earthquake Prone Buildings legislation and revision of sections 6 & 7 of the Resource Management Act (to place land use planning in a risk-based framework), are all still in process, so not all of the lessons have been enacted yet. More research and policy development is needed to enact the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

“We have come far in terms of research. However, research alone does not translate immediately to better risk management, so the research findings need to be communicated in forms that are useful, and used. I am impressed with how quickly and extensively the role of research and science communication has evolved in New Zealand in the past five years. The Christchurch earthquake really has brought about a ‘sea change’ in the approach and attitude of researchers and the research user community. Of course, effective communication is two-way, so the audience or potential audience needs to be listening and willing to up-skill to absorb the science and we, the source of information, have to listen to what our audiences need.

“I have also observed how agencies, both public and private, and different disciplines are now working more collectively toward common goals. In the past five years researchers and research leaders have sat with a much more diverse range of stakeholders to discuss the evidence needed to instigate policy reform, than before the Canterbury experience.

“By continuing to explore these two areas, we continue to honour the memory of painful events of five years ago.”

Dr Ken Gledhill, Head of Department: GeoNet and Geohazards Monitoring, GNS Science, comments:

“Our world changed on the 22 February 2011. As a scientist and the Director of GeoNet, I’m an expert at numbers not with words. Explaining the impact of this earthquake with words is an almost impossible task.

“When I reflect on the last five years, I see the tremendous growth that has occurred for our GeoNet project. Before the earthquakes, we were a little, rarely discussed seismic and volcanic monitoring network, known predominately only by scientists, policy makers, hazard analysts and science fans. That all changed after 4 September 2010 and intensified on 22 February 2011 to a level we were not expecting.

“Since then, the positives have been many.  What we know about earthquakes since 22 February has taken us to new and unexpected directions that we could not have imagined before the earthquake. We now have GeoNet Rapid, which delivers almost immediate information on earthquakes to our users. We now have the GeoNet APP, along with our website and social media platforms. We sent out 2,150,890 push notifications on the recent Valentine’s Day earthquake.  However, it must be cold comfort for the people of Canterbury that the leaps and bounds in the science come from that earthquake that took so much.

“However, I am acutely aware that the costs of this growth have been exceedingly high. The loss of life, the damage to the city, the suffering of people, is almost unimaginable even five years later.

“So perhaps the greatest learning for me was how people turned to GeoNet for support. I learned that science can sometimes comfort as well as inform. With every large earthquake that has come since the 22 February 2011, the first consideration we have now is about the people affected and how we can communicate with them. We have become people centred, always learning more about how to provide the latest and most useful information to all our audiences.

“In this way, we honour the people of Christchurch, who are still teaching us lessons about resilience and enduring strength.”

Assoc, Prof Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Active Tectonics and Geomorphology, University of Melbourne (previously University of Canterbury), comments:

“At 4:35am on Saturday, 4 September 2010, the Darfield earthquake immediately threw NZ earthquake scientists together to be scrutinized under high pressure on the national stage. We learned that cross-institutional science collaborations are important and deliver the best science, but due to the competitive nature of science, can sometimes be hard to manage politically and logistically. We learned that having a general operational framework in place is important but that good research partnerships can be developed and maintained on the fly. We learned how to turn parts of the tragedy into personal and discipline-wide successes.

“We learned just how important it is for scientists to be immediately available to the media, to be honest, open, and transparent with their findings, and that unproven hypotheses can in fact be shared with the public providing they are appropriately framed. I posit that the earthquakes have been one catalyst in increasing scientist engagement with the media nationally, even outside of the earth sciences.

” In the long-term as individuals, I’m sure many of us have learned more about finding the balance between trying to amicably collaborate with everyone, versus getting stuck in and focusing on delivering key science outcomes at the expense of all-inclusiveness. At the national level we’ve learned that we are able to cope with most of the earthquake science for a major event nationally, with a bit of help from our friends.

“From the broader perspective, numerous large cities throughout the world are located in settings similar to Christchurch; in many of these instances, active faults have not been identified and seismic hazard analyses may not consider the possibility that earthquakes sourced from underlying proximal blind faults earthquakes may pose a significant shaking hazard.

“In the case of the Canterbury earthquakes, more attention could have been pre-emptively focused on the search and investigation of these features. Even following the Mw 7.1 Darfield earthquake, the presence of large rockfall deposits at the base of slopes that were only marginally affected by this earthquake provided evidence that stronger shaking from a more proximal fault source was an important scenario to consider publically and for rapid scientific debate. This challenge transcends Earth science alone, and is a topic for concerted future efforts.

“Some of the content presented above is published in a large synthesis of the impacts of the Canterbury earthquake sequence published this week in the international journal Tectonophysics. The article is free for the public to view for the first 3 months. Other research articles on the Canterbury earthquake sequence are freely available at”

Dr John Ristau, seismologist, GNS Science, comments:

“The February 2011 M 6.2 Christchurch earthquake was triggered by the September 2010 M 7.1 Darfield earthquake 5 ½ months earlier. When the Darfield earthquake happened it was felt that Christchurch had dodged a bullet as the earthquake occurred at 4:35 AM on a Saturday morning and was centred about 40 km west of the city centre, which helped lessen the human impact. Tragically the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake was the opposite, with the epicentre very close to the city centre and occurring at lunch time on a weekday when the city centre was at its most crowded. On the day I was asked to go to the Beehive to conduct interviews with the media, and the atmosphere was very sombre as reports of casualties and scope of the devastation came in.

“As a seismologist and the GNS Science duty seismologist on the day of the Darfield earthquake, I have been closely involved with the Canterbury earthquake sequence literally from the first moments. During the first 5 ½ months we carried out a great deal of research to understand why the Darfield earthquake happened in a region of traditionally low seismic activity in New Zealand, why the aftershocks expanded beyond the traditional aftershock zone and towards Christchurch, and the impact on Christchurch and the surrounding communities. In the modern age of social media and rapid dissemination of information, combined with the human impact of the earthquake and aftershocks, GeoNet and GNS Science became household names around New Zealand as providers of up-to-date information on the earthquakes. The duty seismologists are the first point of contact with the media and we devoted a great deal of time talking to the media and keeping the public informed. Every large aftershock in the sequence re-ignited media and public interest, in particular the Boxing Day 2010 earthquakes close to the Christchurch city centre.

“The February 2011 Christchurch earthquake dramatically changed our focus from being mainly about the science. When talking to the media and the public we had to balance our enthusiasm of discussing the science with being respectful of the scale of the tragedy the people of Christchurch were dealing with. In the first days after the earthquake I sometimes found it emotional to conduct interviews about the earthquake, even though I did not know anyone in Christchurch who had suffered from it. In the years since the Canterbury earthquakes began we have learned a great deal about how earthquakes are triggered by stress being transferred in the crust from nearby large earthquakes, and we are continuing to carry out research in this area. This has a major impact on calculating probabilities of future earthquakes and its role in seismic hazard and risk assessment. We now have one of the best sets of seismic data in the world for a major earthquake and we are using this data to help design and retrofit structures to better withstand shaking from large earthquakes. We can apply the lessons we have learned from the Christchurch earthquake to other places in New Zealand and around the world. In this way the tragic events that the people of Christchurch experienced are not forgotten and the lessons learned can be used to save the lives of others.”

David Johnston, Joint Centre for Disaster Research, GNS Science/Massey University, comments:

“To reduce earthquake casualties in future events it is important to understand how people behaved during and immediately after the shaking, and how their behaviour exposed them to risk of death or injury. The 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequences have given us a unique opportunity to better understand this human behaviour.  Most previous studies have relied on an analysis of medical records and/or reflective interviews and questionnaire studies.

“In Canterbury we were able to combine a range of methods to explore earthquake shaking behaviours and the causes of injuries.  In New Zealand, the Accident Compensation Corporation (a national health payment scheme run by the government) allowed researchers to access injury data from over 15 000 people from four earthquakes from 2010 to 2011. We were able to classify the injury context as direct (immediate shaking of the primary earthquake or aftershocks causing unavoidable injuries), action (movement of person during the primary earthquake or aftershocks causing potentially avoidable injuries), and secondary (cause of injury after shaking ceased).

“The research has found that in general, improved building codes, strengthening buildings and securing fittings will reduce future earthquake deaths and injuries. However, the high rate of injuries incurred from undertaking an inappropriate action (e.g. moving around) during or immediately after an earthquake suggests that further education is needed to promote appropriate actions during and after earthquakes. In New Zealand, as in other countries with earthquake risk, public education efforts, such as the Shakeout exercise are trying to address the behavioural aspects of injury prevention. ”

Zoe Mounsey and Dr Sarb Johal, Joint Centre for Disaster Research, GNS Science/Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand, comment:

“Research has been undertaken on health care professionals’ experiences of the Canterbury earthquakes and recovery process. This has focused on the impact of ‘shared trauma’ where the health care professionals are experiencing both the direct effects of the disaster and the indirect effects of working with patients who have been affected. 44 GPs, nurses and mental health care professionals were interviewed about their experiences between two and four years after the start of the earthquake sequence.While shared trauma can have a positive effect on professional/patient relationships in terms of increasing understanding and empathy, there were negative impacts around effectively managing boundaries and compassion fatigue.

“The research identifies the stresses of the recovery process for health care professionals such as higher workload, reduced resources and changes to working environment. The research has highlighted the negative impact of secondary stressors such as housing repairs and dealing with insurance companies, on both health care professionals and their patients.

“The health care professionals identified a number of sources of support with peer support being seen as particularly important for many and while the benefits of self-care were acknowledged, many the health care professionals felt that this was not something they effectively used. Even though professional counselling was available to the health care professionals, the participants identified barriers to using these services.  The research provides insights for those providing health care services in a post disaster environment.”