Shaken and stirred: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011


It’s a grim day in Canterbury. 75 people are confirmed dead and 300 are missing following the magnitude 6.3 earthquake which struck at 12-51pm yesterday. As I write, teams of urban search and rescue specialists from NZ and Australia (soon to be joined by teams from all over the world) are crawling over collapsed buildings throughout the central city. The cathedral (above) has lost its spire, and there are bodies in the rubble around it. I am glad to report that my family and friends, and that of Climate Show co-host Glenn Williams are well, but no-one is untouched by this terrible disaster. Up here in Waipara the initial shaking was bad enough to make us run outdoors, but our relief at escaping damage was immediately tempered by the realisation that someone had just taken a hammering…

For an inkling of the scale of this tragedy and its impact on people who had already survived a magnitude 7.1, but much less damaging, quake last September, I commend author David Haywood’s eloquent description in the Guardian, and Press journalist Vicki Anderson’s heartfelt story of her escape from the Press building (under the cranes in the picture above). US-based NZ climate scientist Kevin Trenberth was also in town, holidaying with his family. This is his account:

Where we were [hillside suburb of Mt Pleasant] was actually the epicentre of the earthquake, which occurred at 9 minutes to 1p.m. We immediately got under the dining room table. The quake was very sharp and the whole ground bucked and heaved. It was very shallow and the devastation was immediate. Everything came off the walls, the china cabinet and all the crystal, nearby crashed around us. In the kitchen, 2m away, the cupboards emptied, the built-in wall oven crashed onto the floor followed by the built-in microwave. Then the big refrigerator with bottom freezer fell on top of all that. Broken glass everywhere. In the room we were in, there were 6 mm plate glass windows that were smashed, and likewise in the adjacent living room. But the house held in front. Not so in the back. The back wall was bricked and had a French door: the wall collapsed and the door jerked out and away from the house so it is wide open (and thus open to looters). The adjacent walls were half brick and they too were wiped out.

Banks of rocks and solid ground near the house collapsed and made it difficult to get out. The road outside had a big crack and the sidewalk dropped 20 cm relative to the road and a gap opened 8 cm wide. The water main broke just above there and water cascaded down past the front of the house, making it a wet experience getting to my rental car, which was OK.

Trenberth spent today in Christchurch helping the rescue effort, along with many, many others. You can get some idea of the size of this event by looking at aerial pictures taken by the NZ defence forces: aside from the building damage in the central city, extensive damage has occurred in many suburbs and soil liquefaction and flooding is affecting tens of thousands of homes. Power is out in 50 per cent of the city, and the mayor has described the water and sewer systems as “trashed”. Recovery is going to take a very long time, but recover and rebuild we will.

I would urge anyone with spare cash to make a donation to the various appeals that are running — there’s a full list here, and the NZ Red Cross is calling for donations (link was down at time of writing). [Update: see NZ based donation service at bottom of article — 100% of monies will go to ChCh mayoral fund.]

Earth science geeks will want to check out the Christchurch Quake Map here (link takes you to last seven days — use the drop down to select Feb 22) for a remarkable visualisation of the earthquake sequence we’ve been experiencing, and the Highly Allochthonous blog has an excellent description of the tectonics of the quake here. It also worth noting that the quake caused a major calving event on the Tasman Glacier lake near Mt Cook. An estimated 30 million tons of ice broke off the glacier tongue when the quake hit.

I hope that Hot Topic readers will understand if my contributions to the site are somewhat disrupted over coming weeks. My focus will be elsewhere, and at the moment it’s very difficult to take the future for granted. A lesson for us all there, perhaps?

Update: this amazing picture of the clouds of dust rising from the city moments after the quake hit looks to have been taken from one of the hill suburbs. Hat tip to @georgedarroch on Twitter, photographer unknown*. Click for full size.

Dusttodust small

*[Edited incorrect photo attribution]

52 thoughts on “Shaken and stirred: Christchurch earthquake Feb 2011”

  1. Hi Gareth: I am so glad you and your family are Ok. I spent most of yesterday acting as the “call centre” for my daughter in Christchurch who struggled with failing cellphone coverage and no power..thankfully she and her 2 kids and husband were all unscathed. It is frustrating to be so far away and so powerless. My heart goes out to all the less fortunate inhabitants of Christchurch.

    1. Yes, it took us 2 hours to hear from our daughter. Eventually a chain of texts got to us and put our minds at rest. Amazing how important cell phones and social networks can be at times like these.

  2. Nice piece Gareth, thanks. My hometown destroyed. Family and friends ok, but as you say, nobody is untouched by this – across the whole country.

    David Haywood’s piece in the Guardian was written on his phone, which makes it even more poignant. That The Press got a paper out (delivered, even to Lyttelton), was even more extraordinary, given that their roof caved in and they lost staff in there.

    Kia kaha Christchurch…
    (and no, I can’t do much work either).

    1. I disabled it because a weasel had found a way to game the voting. One of the things that I’m (not) working on is a new comments policy for HT. Will post something about that fairly soon…

      1. And Monbiot on the Robot Wars:

        After I last wrote about online astroturfing, in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them. Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression that there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I’ll reveal more about what he told me when I’ve finished the investigation I’m working on.

  3. I have seen an allegation that Ring altered his website to change an eathquake prediction for March 20 to the actual one for the Christchurch event. Had someone already alluded to this?

    1. If Ring is attempting to promote himself via some shonky “prediction” of this quake, then he deserves to be publicly ridiculed. I find it utterly disgusting that he should attempt to cash in on this tragedy.

      (PS Judicious use of the wayback machine might reveal any post-facto fiddling)

    2. Yeah. I already alluded to it. You didn’t get it.

      Ring predicts a lot of stuff. Nobody calls him on his failures. If someone as batshit crazy as he is makes enough Barnum statements then some are vague enough that they can’t be falsified.

      1. I did suspect as much. I’ve been putting out some unflattering observations about Ring on overseas websites – hope that at least helps to queer his pitch somewhat.

    3. Well, RW, according to the Silly Beliefs site Ken is on record as saying the following at various times in the months following the 4 Sept earthquake:

      “Update 13 October… Therefore it seems unlikely that as large an earthquake (as 4 Sept) will occur in the same place.
      I would still not consider that another massive earthquake is certain, in fact I think it’s more likely not to be the case in Christchurch. I can only repeat that other well-known earthquakes in NZ’s history have not, as a rule revisited the same site.
      For another disastrous event, Christchurch may or may not be in the firing line again; it could be Wellington or anywhere, and it may not even happen.
      The numbers of shakes do seem to be getting less and the distances greater between clusters. People are at last adjusting.
      …my guess is that these aftershocks will end soon for Christchurch, probably around the end of November.
      it is reasonable to relax and asume that another devastating shake is unlikely to repeat anytime soon, despite a seismology-department knee-jerk reaction that a 6+ mag. earthquake aftershock could be arriving in the district at any time.
      Nothing is achieved by the so-called earthquake experts warning of ever-impending doom, which may be an ongoing exercise in damage control to cover-up performance embarrassment. To proclaim afterwards that more and bigger shakes were to come [is a] distraction… perhaps they should admit to that, rather than make more claims about future events to come
      There is no reason to suppose any aftershocks of significance will occur… ”

      It’s vintage Ken. Sniping at conventional scientists most of the time, except when it suits him. As Silly Beliefs have noted, he’s happy to cite random scientific facts while vilifying the same scientists that are responsible for advancing our understanding of topics such as seismology and thereby generating that information that he cites.


        1. It would be easy to download the quake database from the website and then see if any correlation of tremors against moon phases or moon orbital variations exists.
          Anybody with statistics experience and time on hand keen?
          Could be a neat student project.

          It has been done before: National Geographic:

          and the paper referred to there here:

          From this paper:

          “We show a correlation between the occurrence of shallow,
          thrust earthquakes and the occurrence of the strongest
          tides. The rate of earthquakes varies from the
          background rate by a factor of three with the tidal stress

          However this in no way validates Ken Ring and his amateurish attempts in these matters.

          1. It is interesting to see that tides can actually influence the rate of earthquakes.

            A wacky thought that follows from this is what could be the effect of over use of water for irrigation causing lowering of acquifiers. Could this possibly change the stresses of the earth’s crust sufficiently to induce an earthquake? Now I’m not actually saying that the Canterbury earthquakes were caused by over irrigation. But it’s an interesting theory which you would need to gather some evidence for, before taking seriously.

            I’m not a geologist, so is this completely wacky or worth possibly worth considering?

            1. I don’t think it will have had a causal effect. The quakes are many KM down, well below the level effected by irrigation.
              ChCh like NZ as such straddles a major subduction zone on the “Pacific ring of fire” causing Earthquakes and volcanic activity. We will have to live with this fate unfortunately and this will not have been the last nor the worst of the calamities which will eventually befall this land in this way. Geological stability like climate stability is a great thing while it lasts!

              But sea level rise and the resulting shift of large masses may indeed trigger geological changes including quakes.

  4. My adopted city is broken, and my heart goes out to all who call Christchurch home, especially to those who have lost friends and loved ones. Like may of us, I cried when I saw the cathedral was gone, and I often find myself in tears for no apparent reason as the days pass. But a city is more than mere buildings; it is people. New Zealand is blessed with the most resilient and pragmatic people I have ever known. My regard for them multiplies as the day pass, and I am grateful to those who have asked me for help, for it gives me purpose. As Gareth said, the future cannot be taken for granted. It is only right and fitting that we all work together to deal with this event.

  5. Kia ora Hot Topic

    Please get your facts straight, you are a news site are you not? I say this because as am artist whom is not comfortable taking credit for the work of others.

    Although I am an avid photojournalist (and currently a student of photography), I cannot take credit for the above mentioned photograph… I was no where near Christchurch the day of this horrific natural disaster… merely embracing the power of social online networking to share a different view of the event… Good luck on your quest crediting the actual photographer (next time you’re hungry for a story/content to make your site look good I suggest doing some actual groundwork – seeking permission from artist would be a nice start)…


    EJ Mathers

    1. Sorry about that EJ, incorrect attribution removed. I picked up on a tweet from someone who linked back to you. I am usually pretty scrupulous about image permissions. And I would emphasise that using this image was not about making this site “look good”, it was to provide some perspective on the scale of the tragedy for HT’s readership.

  6. To be honest I don’t think we should even consider what Ken Ring has to say. He is without question an idiot and it does this site no good to even consider his idiotic ravingds. We should be aiming at the more central arguments.
    Having said that I am happy to go on record to say that “Ken Ring is an idiot” if that opinion is useful.

    I agree that his attempts to claim that he predicted the latest ChCh earthquake is deplorable. But that is not surprising. The key question in, how good is his science? Answer: not at all.

    In the end the Ken Rings of this world are meaningless.

    1. I second the Idiot label for Ken.

      It might be important to state perhaps that in terms of shallow quakes tidal forces have a significant influence but that this is not in any way subscribing to Kens theories and certainly not to his moon phase weather nonsense. Ken might try to promote himself and his lunatics with help of earthquakes and tidal influences. So to keep the public informed the distinction between science and quackery would be an important one to make in this regard.

  7. I’d be happy to put him out of mind as an irrelevant lunatic too, Keith, but he does have quite a high public profile – and has even appeared on national radio, who really should know better. Hence I think the debunking is quite useful.

  8. “Lunatic” is perhaps the most correct. “Deluded” certainly. It is unfortunate that our so many of our media are so scientifically illiterate that they give him credence and a forum.

    1. Lunatic is a very apt term for “The Moon Man”

      However, does Ken Ring have a stated position on AGW? I don’t see what he has in common with Monckton, other than you don’t like him.

      1. He thinks AGW is a hoax and, being at hoaxing, tell us that CO2 could not possibly be “up there in the atmosphere” as the CO2 molecule is “heavier than air” and therefore can not rise above the “haze level”.

        (Quotes from Kens lunatic fantasy ramblings, which he repeats even though numerous people took the time – in vane – to educate him on matters of high school physics to no avail.)

        Shows that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Being able to count the molecular weight of CO2 and compare it to N2 or O2 but being unable to comprehend much more about atmospheric physics quickly leads him into the rough….

        Yet despite being rather challenged with simple matters of science, he lectures from his ramshackle pulpit to the masses… to the detriment of many of our peers unfortunately. That puts him into a similar box as Monckton, luckily not with the same global threat level to intoxicate the minds of the masses.

          1. Typical! I have given up watching TV. Campbell started off reasonably well – but it has been a down hill slide – and so now it appears, he’s reached rock bottom.
            Turning the stupifying thing off can be hard at first, but after a while you realize you have so much more time to do so more many enjoyable activities. As for the “news” – the last time I wasted 5 mins – it was more of a gossip column and “look at me” show. I didn’t see anything newsworthy so I switched it off.

            1. To be fair Campbell appeared to have no time for Ring’s claims and even seemed to lose his cool a bit while interviewing him.

            2. I watched the replay of the interview and I do not think that Campbell was particularly skilled in this. Shouting down somebody like Ken Ring the way Campbell did will only embolden those that think Ken is unfairly treated generally as I think he was in this interview. This is not the way to educate people.
              Going with the scientific papers I cited earlier if Ken “predicts” Earthquakes at every king tide, he has a slightly better chance than the throw of the darts to be right. And of cause people will always forget the many erroneous “predictions” of Ken and will remember the “correct” ones. This is the infamous mental statistical blind spot of us humans, that causes silly beliefs of so many kinds, from Homeopathy to superstitions of black cats crossing roads….

  9. The media gave more time to an octopus that they reckoned could figure out who was going to win the world cup.

    Tabloid journalism is all we’re left with in the mainstream media. That’s why I personally don’t bother with it anymore.

  10. Parts of Christchurch were built on swampy land. So are parts of Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Invercargill and probably lots of other towns. Christchurch has given us an insight into how this land could react to an earthquake. What, if anything, can we do to protect infrastructure and buildings elsewhere? And which is more likely to happen first – earthquake or sea level rise? ‘Safe as houses’ is no longer meaningful.

    1. Wellington was going to be built where Petone is now. That was mostly a flood plain for the Hutt River (and still is). The local Maori took pity on the early settlers and offered them land on the other side of the harbour. The NZ Company in goods amongst other things:
      100 red blankets
      120 muskets
      50 steel axes
      2 cases of soap
      2 tierces of tobacco (tierces is “A liquid measure containing the third part of a pipe, or forty-two gallons”)
      1 doz hats and umbrellas
      100 yards of ribbon. etc.
      The full list can be found on page 34 “Adventure in New Zealand” by E Jerningham Wakefield published 1845 by John Murray London.

  11. Here is hoping one outcome of the Christchurch quake is an end to the Roads of National Significance building spree, and a brilliant new quake proof, energy efficient and sustainable city centre.

    Our thoughts with everyone down there.

    1. The rebuilding of Christchurch offers a real opportunity to create a city that looks forward to the next 150 years: a city resilient to the vagaries of tectonics and climate change (especially sea level rise), a city that’s truly sustainable, that offers low or zero carbon living, on a human scale with clever transport options for all.

        1. I don’t know about that John. People still live in Japan and Indonesia. All over the world people live on the sides of volcanoes.

          Do it right and use particularly vulnerable spots for parks or market gardens or other things where buildings or substantial infrastructure are too expensive to proof or insure against the earthquake/ tornado/ flood/ eruption risks of the area.

        2. A little alarmist perhaps John.
          Many people that left in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake are coming back now the dust has settled.
          The city will be rebuilt and it will be better than it was before.
          I’m putting my money where my mouth as I will start building 2 townhouses within 1k of the city center this week. All the trades are ready to go and people still have got to earn a living.

          1. A little alarmist? You guys worry about a few cm of sea level rise and you call me alarmist?

            $20 billion of damage in 45 seconds. That’s alarmist. That’s reality.

            1. John, tone it down a bit please. This is a very sensitive issue.

              I have absolutely no doubt that the city will be rebuilt, and I hope it’s done with some real vision.

            2. No actually the worry is not about a few cm sea level rise, its about meters of it by the time our grand children are in their best. Plus degrees of average warming – meaning double digit warming in some places! – and the resulting demise of perhaps a large amount of species and arable and livable regions plus acidification of oceans and more….
              ChCh was one city and on a global scale a small one. GW will affect every place on the globe in many ways. That indeed is the difference.

              I second the certitude that ChCh will be rebuild. It might be prudent to make sure that the current fault line has come to a rest before tackling this but then ChCh will eventually return with determination and hopefully as Gareth points out with buildings that exemplify the direction we should be going for.

  12. Amazing that people think money is all, billions of dollars of damage because of an earthquake an all think omg its going to cost billions an billions of dollars to rebuilt come-on why does everything have to be about dollars, band together and rebuilt without even thinking of having to put a dollar in front of it. What If mother nature decides to go for a third round in the end mother nature decides what to do, you an I cannot do anything about this but just be prepared that is all and be there for each other life is more important in the end and yes true all we can rebuild. Maybe Christchurch City could be totally destroyed and start from scratch, well most parts of the city and create a future city, high tech and eco friendly style. Remember Dollars shouldn’t come into it band and unite together create a better future. But I guess human beings will never change go ahead think of $$$$$$ and more $$$$$ and more $$$$$ who cares about life and people I want money $$$$ and more $$$$ greed, greed, power and more power this make me sick that the World is like this how pathetic, Mother Nature go for it create more earthquakes and scare everyone on the planet it will only be then that Humans will realize when it is time to be there for each other.

    I live in Christchurch but on the West Side of Christchurch and know what is going on and my heart goes out to those families that have lost there love ones.

    Be there for each other prepare for it, don’t be nasty about everything let people have there say (Ken Ring) not like ( John Campbell) going all bananas not professional dude not professional at all.

    We all as humans should listen to our Mother Nature, take time and smell the flowers everyone that is something that I notice that this world is not doing everyone is on a race to there coffins.

    Anyway that is my few words worth, the moral of my story everyone just be there for “Each Other” no matter what. “Mother Nature will win in the end.”, and just be prepared that is all you can do but life also must carry on too.

    1. Kurt.
      Why does it have to be about dollars?

      Well, for a start, I am deeply saddened by the dead and the missing. I am deeply upset by the stories of amputations. Of people’s whose homes, jobs and livelihoods have been wrecked.

      But at the end of the day, you need money to rebuild. You also need a population that has the will to rebuild a city and live and work there.

      The scars from this tragedy will be with us for a long time. The emotional and economic damage will be immense.

      It will take real courage and determination to carry on. I just sense that a lot of people will leave ChCh forever.For many, there will be no work and lack of money will drive them away.

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