Maybe I read the wrong newspapers, but around the time of the September earthquake in Christchurch, I got the impression that it came as a very big surprise to all concerned. I got the impression that people thought Christchurch was safe as houses as far as earthquakes went. Not quite the last place on earth for an earthquake, but low risk. Well. That was the impression I got from what I read, and from people I know who live there. How wrong I was.
My last blog on this subject reported a few of my speculative thoughts on the matter, and quoted from the abstract to research by the NZ Institute of Geological and Nuclear Science (NZIGNS), published in Environmental and Engineering Geoscience 1995, and entitled Geology of Christchurch.
It took a while to track down the actual report itself, but I found it buried within the Serials section of the General Library at Auckland University. There are 61 pages of it covering many aspects of the geology of Christchurch and a detailed section on the risk of earthquakes there.
My reading of the data suggests that between 1869 and 1988 there have been 12 earthquakes bigger than 6.0 on the Richter Scale within 150 kms of Christchurch. Two of these were 7.0 and larger. The report contains this photo of earthquake damage to the Cathedral spire from an earthquake in 1888, and reports that the Cathedral was also damaged by earthquake in 1922 (a magnitude 6.9 earthquake centered around Motunau) and in 1929 (the Murchison earthquake). I discovered newspaper reports in the National Library that it was also damaged by the Cheviot earthquake in 1901.
The NZIGNS report tabulates 59 earthquakes that were “felt in Christchurch” between 1946 and 1994 (9 of these were centered outside the central South Island). Interestingly, the report tabulates the intensity of these earthquakes within Christchurch in terms of the Modified Mercalli Scale and the Richter Scale.
Modified Mercalli ScaleOf the 59 earthquakes “felt in Christchurch” between 1946 and 1994, 47 were MMIV in intensity (ie IV on the Modified Mercalli Scale), 9 were MMV, and there was a MMVII (this was the 8 March 1987 earthquake centred in Pegasus Bay.)
(By the way - my understanding of the damage caused by the recent earthquakes in Christchurch that these range between MMVII and MMIX in intensity, according to the Mercalli Scale. Parts of Christchurch were harder hit than others.)
The NZIGNS report (dated 1995 remember) states: “Dibble and others consider the 5 June 1869 New Brighton earthquake to have been the most destructive since European settlement. This earthquake is estimated to have produced intensities of MMVII-MMVIII at Christchurch, and reports of the observed effects are consistent with an M5.75 earthquake (Richter Scale) located 10 miles from the city centre…” (NB: the nave of Christchurch Cathedral was not built until 1881.)
I found these reports about that earthquake and one that came shortly after:
5 June 1869: Earthquake in early ChristchurchOn 5 June 1869, Christchurch settlers were shaken by an earthquake centred beneath the city, possibly around Addington or Spreydon. The earthquake was probably shallow, with a magnitude of about 5.8. There was damage to stone buildings and the spire of St John’s Church on Latimer Square, and many fallen chimneys. The quake may have caused some ground settlement in the Heathcote Estuary, as locals describe the tide as running higher up the Heathcote River afterward.Anyway, getting back to the NZIGNS report. It goes on to consider the risk of liquefaction, and reports past liquefaction events in these terms:
“…Only one instance of liquefaction during an earthquake is recorded from the Christchurch area. This was for a magnitude M6-7.5 earthquake which occurred on 16 November 1901 (intensity MMIX in Christchurch) centred near Cheviot in north Canterbury…. ‘it was reported in The Press that at Kaiapoi the earthquakes of the 16th inst.were felt with great violence; that at some places the earth opened and water and sand were emitted from vents in the ground and that at one time an inundation by water from this source was apprehended…’”
“A terrible earthquake occurred at 7.45 this morning, travelling direct from, east to west. It lasted several minutes. There is not a brick building or chimney left standing. The windows in many houses were shattered to atoms. One little child was killed by a falling house. The bakers' ovens are broken to pieces, and everything in the district is a complete wreck….”
Note the power of this earthquake - "no brick building left standing...." Newspaper reports at the time record a string of aftershocks, the fact that people became exhausted, would not return to their homes, camped in the fields. That the Cathedral spire was damaged. This is the Evening Post newspaper report about what was seen at Kaiapoi during the Cheviot centred 'quake:
“…When first shock had passed, Mr. W. Waites, who owns an orchard and garden at the end of Charles and Sewell streets, noticed that his land was' apparently flooding from springs having been opened. It was then discovered that across his land, and part of Mr. Dunn's section, and over the surface of a paddock of several acres held by Mr. J. Sims, fissures from 1in to 3in in. width, and several chains in length, had opened… From these earthquake openings the water was freely issuing in such volume as to cause… probable inundation. Fortunately the rapid expansion of water seemed to be checked by a liberal supply of sand from some grey quicksand layer below the level of the river, and this was deposited in the orchard and elsewhere in the shape of round and oval porridge pots… The water, which had risen about six inches in on hour or two, disappeared by percolation, leaving the sand deposits in different fantastic forms….”
The 1995 NZIGNS report includes this “liquefaction potential map” of Christchurch, with high, medium, low and no liquefaction risk zones marked. The report confirms that the materials that are most susceptible to liquefaction are water saturated, loose, uniformly graded silt and sand, and notes that liquefaction has been observed in loose sandy gravels (overseas examples given). The report states:
“some of the Christchurch metropolitan area is underlain by similar materials, particularly large parts of the eastern suburbs and areas adjacent to the Heathcote River… Interbedded gravels are thinnest or absent in the central and eastern area of Christchurch where liquefaction effects and ground deformations (settlement and lateral spreading) are expected to be greatest…”
The NZIGNS report tabulates predictions for the likely return periods of different magnitude earthquakes that might affect Christchurch in future. These are under a section headed: “Seismic Risk”, which notes work done by “Elder and others”, and which is tabulated as the graphic to the left shows. Among other things it predicts that quakes as damaging as Christchurch has had recently (at least MMVIII) will happen every 55 years on average.
The EQC report summary notes that the available data (covering the earlier earthquake events that are described above) is short, making it difficult to provide reliable predictions, given that the best predictor for the future is what has happened in the past. It states: The EQC Seismic Risk Assessment for Christchurch is dated 1991. Twenty years ago.
The EQC report summary notes that the available data (covering the earlier earthquake events that are described above) is short, making it difficult to provide reliable predictions, given that the best predictor for the future is what has happened in the past. It states:
The EQC Seismic Risk Assessment for Christchurch is dated 1991. Twenty years ago.