Five years on – scientists reflect on the Christchurch quake

Five years after the biggest disaster in modern New Zealand, experts who were involved in communicating the science of the quakes share their experiences and thoughts.

At 12:51pm on the 22nd of February 2011, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city of Christchurch. The disaster killed 185 people and caused billions of dollars of damage.

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

We now have one of the best sets of seismic data in world for a major earthquake and we are using this data to help design and retrofit structures to better withstand shaking from large earthquakes. – John Ristau


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

Dr Kelvin Berryman

The 22 February 2011 earthquake kicked off an unforeseen chain of events that will be felt for decades in New Zealand.

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.

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.

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.

I learned that science can sometimes comfort as well as inform. – Ken Gledhill


Dr John Ristau, seismologist, GNS Science, comments:

Dr John Ristau
Dr John Ristau

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.

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.

We now have one of the best sets of seismic data in 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.

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. – Mark Quigley


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

Associate Professor Mark Quigley

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.

A large synthesis of the impacts of the Canterbury earthquake sequence was published this week in the international journal Tectonophysics. Other research articles on the Canterbury earthquake sequence are freely available

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.

Dr Ken Gledhill
Dr Ken Gledhill

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.

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

Professor David Johnston
Professor David Johnston

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.

In Canterbury we were able to combine a range of methods to explore earthquake shaking behaviours and the causes of injuries.

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. Forty four 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 research provides insights for those providing health care services in a post disaster environment.

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