Learning from experience and science: Ten years on

We can’t predict when or where New Zealand’s next large earthquake will be or how its impacts will be felt, but we can do more with what we have learnt – from experience and from science. We can use our knowledge of past earthquakes to be better prepared for future events.

Ten years ago today, Cantabrians were jolted awake in the early hours of Saturday morning by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake centred on a previously unknown fault. The earthquake triggered a series of ongoing aftershocks, ultimately resulting in the loss of loved ones, severe disruptions to everyday life and a long, long journey to recovery, which continues today.

It has been a difficult path to travel from response to recovery, and out of its challenges we have learnt a lot about ourselves, our landscape and our capacity to come together when faced with what was almost unimaginable destruction – unimaginable until it happens, that is.

AF8 [Alpine Fault magnitude 8] is part of an effort to build on our learnings from past events, by sharing knowledge and strengthening our networks, to increase our collective resilience for future events. Here, two of our team share reflections on Saturday 4 September, 2010 and their thoughts on how far we’ve come.

Learning from Experience

“At the time of the September 4 earthquake I was the Training and Operations Coordinator for the Canterbury CDEM Group” recalls James Thompson, now Team Leader for the Canterbury CDEM Group Office.

“On the day itself, I was actually in Wellington evaluating a course. I remember getting a phone call early in the morning from my wife saying there had been a big earthquake, but that she and the kids were OK. I spent most of the rest of the day trying to get back to Christchurch, eventually hitching a ride on the Westpac air rescue helicopter. The next two to three weeks involved long days and nights working with many agencies towards a new normal for the region. Then of course we had more devastating earthquakes that followed.”

“As an emergency manager I have developed many exercises for Civil Defence. Often during or after these exercises I would hear feedback that the scenario for the exercise I had chosen would never happen.”

“This made a colleague and I think about the September 4 earthquake – where it had occurred on an unknown fault, how it damaged some buildings that were to be used by Civil Defence, how it happened while some key staff were away, how it damaged stop banks and left them vulnerable to the forecasted nor’ wester rain, meaning a river would flood and that a slip and snow would close the two highways north of Christchurch…”

“If we had written this scenario as an exercise, we would probably have been told to tone it down a bit!” explains Mr Thompson.

Learning from experience and science AF8 Canterbury Earthquakes 2010-11

The Darfield Earthquake on Saturday 4th September 2010 occurred on a previously unmapped fault line. Source: Canterbury CDEM Group

“So in 2013, based on our experiences of the 2010-2011 earthquakes, I enlisted the help of two scientists from the University of Canterbury (Prof. Tom Wilson and Dr. Tom Robinson) to help develop an Alpine Fault earthquake scenario that was scientifically possible. A scenario I could defend if someone decided to tell me to tone it down a bit. Luckily, no one did tell me to tone it down and Exercise Te Ripahapa ran across all 6 South Island CDEM Groups in May 2013.”

“This partnership between science and Civil Defence was so successful that not long after Te Ripahapa, the 6 South Island CDEM Groups and scientists from throughout New Zealand came together and collaboratively developed the AF8 project and subsequent SAFER (South Island Alpine Fault Earthquake) Framework, which is used today by Civil Defence and our partner agencies to prepare for when the next Alpine Fault earthquake happens.”

“While the September 4, 2010 event and following earthquakes resulted in terrible losses one of the results is that New Zealand is now better prepared for future earthquakes through the effectiveness of scientifically plausible exercise scenarios.”

Learning from Science

Dr. Caroline Orchiston, AF8 Science Lead explains, “AF8 was created to improve the way we respond to a future magnitude 8 earthquake on the Alpine Fault, which we know will happen, judging by the way the fault has behaved in the past. This earthquake is likely to occur within the lifetimes of many New Zealanders, and will require our ‘Team of 5 million’ to pull together again to support the response and to assist in the recovery.”

“On September 4, 2010 I was in Washington State, USA with my colleague Prof. David Johnston when we heard the news of the damaging earthquake in Canterbury.” recalls Dr. Orchiston.

“We watched from a distance, as the story broke in the international media. My first instinct was to be grateful it happened in the early hours of the morning – there would have been many lives lost otherwise. Then I recalled that this wasn’t the first time Christchurch had been hit by a moderate, damaging earthquake. I had in my mind an image of the Christchurch Cathedral spire broken during an earthquake in 1888. It was repaired, and then fell again in 1901. Christchurch is no stranger to past earthquakes.”

“It’s easy to become complacent between events, but the truth is we live on a plate boundary and earthquakes are a part of life, for all New Zealanders– we’re not called the Shaky Isles for nothing.”

Learning from experience and science AF8 Canterbury Earthquakes 2010-11

The Darfield Earthquake on Saturday 4th September 2010 was the most damaging earthquake in New Zealand since the Hawke’s Bay Earthquake in 1931. Source: GeoNet

“Now in our fifth year, AF8 has come a long way since the early conversations which came from the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquakes and Exercise Te Ripahapa in 2013. Alpine Fault science continues apace, with new research focussing on understanding the impacts and consequences of a future earthquake, as well as continuing to build our knowledge of the fundamentals of the fault itself.”

“The SAFER Framework is designed to bring these learnings together and share them with our emergency response agencies to improve our coordination and collective response capability. The success of AF8’s approach is thanks to the willingness of many people, who’ve stepped up to give thought to the challenges that we will have to deal with.” says Dr. Orchiston.

“Fast-forward ten years on from Saturday 4 September, 2010 – In 2020 so much has changed in the way Aotearoa New Zealand thinks about the hazards that we are presented with. In that time we have had two major earthquakes disasters, numerous droughts, floods, volcanic events, severe weather disruptions and a pandemic. It seems we are starting to understand that all the uncertainty presented to us by our natural environment might in fact be the new normal.”

AF8 would like to thank everyone who has made the commitment to get involved in this work. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge. Thank you for being open to learning from others. Thank you for your contribution to our collective resilience for a future event – it has been an incredible team effort.

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