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Phil’s Weekly Column: Our new shaky attitude towards earthquakes

In Philip Duncan’s weekly Saturday column he today looks at our new shaky attitude towards earthquakes and volcanoes as our “every day” quakes continue to upset some New Zealanders.

ON THURSDAY there was breaking news out of GNS Science after volcanologists determined that a recent increase in activity meant the aviation alert level needed to be lifted over White Island.  The volcano’s alert level remains the same, but the increase in activity means pilots should be on a slightly higher alert in case a small eruption shoots ash and rock into the sky above this well offshore volcano.

But this raised alert level follows hot on the heels from the decision to lift Mt Tongariro’s alert level up to one a couple of weeks ago, after a swarm of small quakes there.  The two are unrelated confirms GNS.

Add on to that a few big, but deep, earthquakes around the North Island recently and instantly the fears come back.  Even a small quake can now generate fear in some of us – something I don’t recall being much of an issue before the Canterbury quakes.  The fear often comes from not knowing, at the time, if this will be a big quake or a little one. When will it stop?  Will it get bigger?  Am I feeling the tail end of something much bigger further away?  Will this produce a tsunami?  Is this another big Christchurch quake?

Christchurch has repeatedly surprised us (even if we shouldn’t have been surprised) with big aftershocks and new big quakes.  But outside of the Canterbury region it’s important to remember it’s business as usual underground.  This doesn’t dismiss emotions and fears held by many – but instead embraces the “normalness” of regular jolts.

But I’ve found even pointing out the facts can be a minefield.  Like when I pointed out the fact a recent large quake in Taranaki was not a major concern because it was so deep, unlike the very shallow and damaging Canterbury quakes.  The comparison was never about saying one is scarier than the other – a quake of any size can be scary to anyone, it depends entirely on your history with quakes – but instead I was factually pointing out deep quakes pose very little threat to us, even if they feel scary.   Why did I do that?  Because people were becoming increasingly hysterical with comments posted on social media sites and to us at  Fears of tsunami, fears of something major happening, fears of huge aftershocks.

I’m no stranger to the fear of earthquakes.  I was in the first Christchurch earthquake seven stories up in a now condemned building and really thought my time was up.  For those who have never had that realisation that you’re about to die right now, it stays with you – forever.

I was living near Edgecumbe in the 80s when that powerful quake struck and the memories of it are always with me – especially the endless aftershocks, including powercuts at night coupled with violent aftershocks and then an electrical storm – I thought the world was ending.  The memories are just as strong today as they were 25 years ago.  Between those two big events I’ve also probably felt around another 50 earthquakes and have seen Mt Ruapehu erupt from my home and had its ash fall on me.

I don’t point this out to win any competition – but purely to let you see that my opinions are well thought out and from a lifetime of experience…not just a knee jerk reaction to recent events.

What helps me control my fears of further nasty quakes and eruptions are the facts.  Statistics are actually on our side.   Facts are important – however sometimes the facts aren’t pleasant and the recent normal activity has shown that we, as New Zealanders, are still incredibly traumatised by the Canterbury quakes.  Nearly 200 innocent lives were lost and for many people the pain will never ever go and neither will the fear each time the ground rumbles a little…or a lot.

The pain from the Canterbury quakes is evident.  When a moderately sized quake jolts some part of New Zealand these days Facebook and Twitter become full of comments like “our prayers are with these people” or “fingers crossed everyone is alright”.  The sentiment is beautiful but in my view it’s time we all took a bit of a deep breath and accept that we live in a country dubbed “the shaky isles” for a reason.  We have always had – and will continue to have – moderate quakes on a regular basis. 

GeoNet has made huge advances in the detection and instant reporting of these quakes – so it feels like we’re having more earthquakes and more volcanic issues – when in reality we’re simply hearing about more.

White Island is our most active volcano. I remember it erupting in the 1980s with big plumes of ash that we could see from our school just outside of Te Puke.  It erupts often and usually it has little impact on those who live nearby on the mainland.  Sometimes the eruptions are small, other times they are big.  But as anyone who lives in Bay of Plenty knows, the island is always smoking away and reminding us she’s there.

In the past 100 years there have only been a handful of deadly quakes – and only two, Christchurch and Napier, have caused widespread problems to a major centre – these were 80 years apart. 

It’s important to remember that quakes of 6.0 and less are fairly common…many of them are felt with little damage. 

To those who are traumatised by recent devastating earthquakes in our history take some comfort in their rareness.  It may not stop the fear and it certainly doesn’t change what has happened… but it does give us a little comfort in that big events are often well spaced out across each century and well spaced our physically across our country.  From White Island in the north to Fiordland in the south.

Earthquakes and volcanos make up this small country we live on.  Without them this country wouldn’t exist.  

I wish there was something we could say to give people true peace of mind – but there isn’t.  It’s part of what we have to accept when living here….but I appreciate that doesn’t make every shaky reminder something we should just “get over”…but they are something we do have to live with.

Clearly for those in Canterbury – and those who were affected by the quakes wherever you may live now – earthquakes may spark fear for many years, possibly decades.  That’s why patience, love, support and understanding is needed to move on – but at the same time we should always be embracing science and the facts, even if sometimes they don’t always say what we might want to hear. 

– Philip Duncan


Zelda Wynn on 3/08/2012 11:03pm

Philips’s sensitivity,acceptance & caring knows no bounds. NZ public is very fortunate to have a sensitive,sensible,accurate, caring Weather Watch boss.
Great attitude!

WW Forecast Team on 5/08/2012 4:06am

Thank you Zelda, that’s very kind of you to say 🙂


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