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Quake hazard to the South from Akatore Fault hard to assess

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

akatore fault image
MSc student Briar Taylor-Silva and Professor Mark Stirling undertake research work in a trench across the Akatore Fault at Big Creek east of Milton.

One of the closest active geological faults to Dunedin is not giving up its secrets easily.

That is worrying when it comes to assessing the potential earthquake hazard the Akatore Fault poses to residents in Dunedin and around the region.

Researchers from the University of Otago’s Department of Geology and GNS Science, led by the University’s Professor Mark Stirling, have been studying the recent geological history and movements of the fault, which may extend as much as 60km from south of Dunedin towards the Clutha River mouth.

They have found the Akatore Fault may have a maverick streak, behaving strangely during the past 125,000 years or so.

Master of Science student Briar Taylor-Silva, Professor Stirling and Senior GNS Scientist Dr Nicola Litchfield say there are signs of three significant “recent” (Holocene) earthquakes on the Akatore Fault in the past 12,000 years, following a long quiet spell possibly stretching back about 125,000 years further.

Ms Taylor-Silva estimates the three recent quakes had magnitudes of between 6.8 and 7.4, each displacing the ground by up to two metres vertically.

The fault runs for about 20km onshore – between about Taieri Mouth and Toko Mouth – and possibly more than 40km just offshore further north and south, though its precise length is not yet known.

Ms Taylor-Silva says fieldwork included digging a trench across the fault at Big Creek east of Milton, near the Akatore forest [view the trench on Google Maps at coordinates -46.147654, 170.118349].

A second trench was dug at Rocky Valley Stream [Google Maps, coordinates -46.221430, 170.028542].

The trenching sites were chosen as the streams there were dammed by fault ruptures and became swampy.

Organic material from these swampy, peaty sediments deposited following the large quakes were then carbon dated to calculate approximate dates for the events.

She says the first occurred sometime between 12,100 and 1,280 years ago.

The second and third major Akatore Fault quakes then appear to have happened very close together geologically speaking, between around 1,280 years before now and 760 years ago.

“We have been trying to understand whether the fault has slipped enough during those three Holocene events or whether we should expect more earthquakes in the immediate future,” Ms Taylor-Silva says.

“More work is required to answer this question. However, I think we need to treat the Akatore Fault as a serious hazard.

“The episodic nature of the fault just makes it more difficult to estimate future earthquake hazards. With faults that have periodic ruptures, we can estimate how often an earthquake may be likely to occur – say, every x years – but we can’t do that for the Akatore Fault very well.

“It’s quite worrying for assessing the hazard the fault poses because we can’t say there won’t be another earthquake in the near future, as we don’t really understand its behaviour,” she says.

For more information, please contact:

Professor Mark Stirling
Department of Geology
Tel 03 470 3539

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