New Zealand Earthquakes: locations, depths and tsunami

More detailed investigation of earthquake-related documents has now led me to write something further about earthquakes in New Zealand. (For earlier posts about the Christchurch earthquakes see in the earthquake category.) I have found four GNS maps ( which, when brought together, seem fundamental to understanding the ‘big picture’.  I have therefore reproduced and interpreted them in this post, using information gleaned from a range of sources.

The first map (above) shows the three major fault systems in New Zealand: the North Island System, the Marlborough System and the Alpine Fault. What is also highlighted in this picture is that the North Island System actually separates the main Indo-Australian Plate (in this diagram more simply called the Australian Plate) from a ‘rootless fragment’ of this same plate. This Indo-Australian fragment has detached and is now taking a ride on top of the Pacific Plate. The real surface boundary of the Indo-Australian Plate is the Hikurangi Trough (also called a trench) to the east, where the Pacific Plate is being pushed under. The main NZ tsunami risk comes from an undersea earthquake in this trough. The figures printed within this map of 38, 39, and 41 are the average annual movement in millimetres along these parts of the trough. Elsewhere, I have seen GNS data (reported in earlier posts) indicating that the Alpine Fault moves at a similar rate to this, but that the two segments of the Indo-Australian trench are moving relative to each other at only 5-10 mm per annum. This recognition that movement between the two Indo-Australian fragments might be less than previously thought has led to suggestions that the risk to Wellington might also be less than  previously thought. Basically, the smaller annual movement leads to longer return intervals between big earthquakes. (However, the earthquakes that Wellington feels are not only those between the two parts of the Indo Australian Plate, as the Pacific Plate does reach under Wellington at a depth of 30-40km. More on Wellington later.)

The picture above shows where the major shallow earthquakes have been in the last 160+ plus years.  It is shallow earthquakes that do the most damage. There are two big swathes of the country where no big damaging earthquakes have occurred. One of these is all of the North Island to the west of the North Island faults. This is not unexpected, as it is generally an area of only moderate risk for shallow earthquakes (but not for volcanoes). The second is the area adjacent to (i.e. both west and east) of the Alpine Fault. This is not so reassuring, as it indicates that pressure is building up. (The Magnitude 7.1 Arthur’s Pass earthquake of 1929 was on the Poulter Fault which is one of several faults, this one relatively minor but others considerably larger, branching off the northern extremity of the Alpine Fault.)  The earthquakes in Fiordland are associated with the Puysegur Trench where the Indo-Australian plate is subducting (diving beneath) the Pacific Plate.

The third map (above) shows all of the shallow earthquakes of more than Magnitude 3 over a ten year period. Most likely, this is up to the end of 2009, or perhaps even earlier, as the Magnitude 7.1 Darfield (Canterbury) earthquake of 4 September 2010 is not shown. Essentially, this map confirms how we really are the Shakey Isles but with the shallow earthquakes largely along the faults, and overlapping on this map as a splodge of red.

This last map (above) provides key information of several things. First, it shows how in the North Island the Pacific Plate is descending beneath the main part of the Indo-Australian Plate. The increasing depth going from east to west across the North Island gives a strong indication of the slope at which the Pacific Plate is descending. The second point is how there have been no earthquakes at depth  along the Alpine Fault. Once again, this is indicative of pressure building up. The two plates are in a stalemate, but the pressure is continually building, and with nowhere else to go the fault must eventually unzip. The eastern side including the peaks of the Main Divide will move south. The western side will move North.

So what does all of this mean? My own interpretations are multiple. The first is that the GNS data reinforces the notion that the Alpine Fault, which last unzipped in a major way in about 1717, is a major menace. The greatest risk, because of proximity to the Fault, is on the West Coast. (See earlier posts.)

My second interpretation is that the Hikurangi Trough provides our greatest risk for a tsunami. I would like to learn more about that. I know that the Gisborne earthquake of 6.8 in December 2007 was at 40km depth within this trough.  However, although this earthquake did considerable damage to Gisborne, it was too deep and of insufficient magnitude to create a tsunami. Apparently, the risk of tsunami  from the Hikurangi Trough is enhanced by the possibility of major sediment deposits, deposited by the sea currents, being shaken off the sides as a landslide.  It seems that the risk of sediment landslides is strongest at the southern end of the Hikurangi Trough. This is of particular concern for those living along the Kaikoura Coast in the South Island. However, for anyone who lives in low-lying areas along the east coast of both islands, from East Cape in the north to Christchurch in the south, this Hikurangi Trough seems far too close for comfort.

I indicated earlier that I would say more about Wellington. Despite some indications that they have already had their big one (officially known as the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake of magnitude 8.2, the biggest recorded in New Zealand since European settlement), and that the return intervals are longer than  previously thought, there is still great scope for massive earthquakes. There are also some low-lying parts of Wellington that are susceptible both to liquefaction and tsunami. Similarly, cities like Blenheim, Nelson, Hastings, Napier, Gisborne and Tauranga, together with many smaller towns, would all seem to have significant risk from tsunami. All we can do is plan and prepare, and then get on with living.


About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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10 Responses to New Zealand Earthquakes: locations, depths and tsunami

  1. Caitlin says:

    I like the last sentence the best. Lately we seem to have forgotten about getting on with living…

    An interesting point to note – the large width of the earthquakes you see in the North of map 4 compared to the narrower range in Fiordland is because of the near-vertical nature of the plate boundary to the south. New Zealand is actuallly in an expansion zone in the North, because of the depth of the trough and the Volcanic Zone so that one day in the very distant future the North Island will be fat and wide, while the South Island, due to the horizontal movement on the Alpine Fault, will be its long and skinny sibling

  2. Robyn Galloway says:

    Hi, inteteresting reading. China had a large earthquake exactly 12 hours later than WLG on Monday morning in Ganzu. Do you know what the link is between these techtonic plates? Rgds Robyn

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Almost certainly there is no link between these earthquakes. At the broadest level there is a link between all of the tectonic plates, but these earthquakes have been on just small elements of the maga plates.
      Keith W

  3. stefjourdan says:

    Hi, you write “major sediment deposits, deposited by the sea “. Well, sea current IMO don’t deposit sediments, might rather be terranes:

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Hello Stephane
      I am reasonably confident these are indeed marine sediments and not teranes. But if there is evidence to the contrary, then I am happy to be proven wrong.
      Keith W

  4. Gary says:

    Interesting article
    Is Tauranga on a sub-ducting plate?
    Are the Kaimais also on that plate?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I believe that both Tauranga and the Kaimais are part of the Australian Plate. The Pacific Plate will be trying to slip in underneath from the east. Given that the Australian Plate is ‘on top’, then that is why all the volcanoes are on the Australian Plate (i.e to the west of the surface boundary, and linked to the zone of contact ‘down under’).
      Most of the big earthquakes should be to the east of the volcanic line, with the Hikurangi Trench out to the east of the North Island and offshore from Gisborne (and other places) being particularly high risk.
      However, there are fragments of the Australian Plate that grate against the main plate, and so big earthquakes centred around the Kaimais are still possible when plate fragments decide to ‘do their own thing’ independent of the parent plate.
      The Christchurch earthquakes were caused when plate fragments of the Pacific Plate decided to ‘do their own thing’.
      These Christchurch earthquakes were much smaller than the forthcoming quake on the Alpine Fault (sometime in the next 200 years – the last one was in 1717 and is recorded in the tree rings) but their proximity and shallowness of the Christchurch earthquakes were why they did so much damage.

  5. Pingback: Day 27: I Feel the Earth Move… – Life in New Zealand

  6. Lindsey Jones says:

    Hi Keith: Have you ever heard of any recent volcanic bulge (as small as it may be) around the Auckland area, in particular the Rangitoto Chanel into the Waitamata Harbour?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I have no such information.
      My understanding is that volcanic activity in Auckland is likely at some time in the future. However, eruptions are likely to be modest in size. Rangitoto itself last erupted about 600 years ago and I believe this is the most recent eruption in the Auckland volcanic field. The Rangitoto eruptions are also the largest that have occurred within the Auckland field. There are about 50 volcanoes in the Auckland area, and each has erupted only once (monogenetic) apart from Rangitoto (polygenetic). So when the next eruption does occur it s likely to be at a new site. The first eruption was about 250,000 years ago, suggesting that they occur about every 5000 years on average. Of course individual eruptions do not necessarily follow the law of averages.
      Keith W

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