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Earthquake science

The establishment of the Chair of Earthquake Science, and the appointment of Professor Mark Stirling as the Inaugural Chair in early 2016 effectively marked the commencement of significant efforts to address earthquake science and the associated hazards and risks in low seismicity southern New Zealand.

Otago and Southland share a similar low seismicity tectonic setting to that of Canterbury, as all three provinces lie east of the plate boundary. The 2010–2012 Canterbury earthquake sequence showed these regions to be capable of significant activity after long periods of seismic quiescence.

The establishment of an endowment through the generous donations of individuals, such as Emeritus Professor Rick Sibson, has made the chair position possible, and the position has also recognised the need to have earthquake science expertise permanently established in the Otago region.

The following briefly describes our activities over the past four years.

For more information, contact:

Professor Mark Stirling
Chair of Earthquake Science


Earthquake recurrence modelling in Otago

Hyde Akatore and Titri image

We have conducted paleoseismic studies on a total of five active faults. Four of these have been in the Otago region: Akatore Fault (Taylor-Silva et al., 2019); Hyde Fault (see image); Cardrona Fault; and Titri Fault (the latter a GNS Science-led study). The fifth study has been a joint Otago-GNS Science study of the Hundalee Fault, one of the 20+ faults that ruptured during the M7.8 2016 Kaikoura earthquake (Stirling et al., 2017; Williams et al., 2018; Litchfield et al., 2018).

The Otago studies have been very important in terms of understanding the recurrence behavior of faults in low seismicity regions, and in educating the public that local faults exist, and are much more hazardous than the distant Alpine Fault. The Akatore Fault is especially the case, as it has had three large ground-rupturing earthquakes in the Holocene, with two of them occurring in the last c.1000 years (Taylor-Silva et al., 2019). The fault also shows the only contemporary microseismicity in the general area, which is consistent with it being in a phase of heightened activity (Todd et al. 2020).

In a joint collaborative effort with Geoscience Australia and EQC we have been using these data to develop models of earthquake recurrence in low seismicity regions, and in doing so have been investigating the possibility that the faults behave in a strongly aperiodic manner.

Ground motion simulations for Dunedin and Mosgiel

We have been using the SCEC broadband simulation platform to develop ground motion simulations for Dunedin and Mosgiel from local active faults (Hyde, Akatore, and Titri; see image).

Seismic hazard study

Initial simulations assumed rock site conditions, followed by a progression to 1D non-linear site response modelling.

We are now extending the 1D simulations to 2D in order to model the site response from the sediment profiles beneath parts of Dunedin, and from the fault-controlled Taieri sedimentary basin. It is clear from these results that the occurrence of a large local earthquake on the Akatore Fault would produce shaking 5–10 times stronger than Dunedin has experienced in historical time (since 1840). This would have massive impacts on Dunedin buildings, especially heritage buildings.

Seismic hazard modelling

Clyde Dam seismic hazard study

We are involved in a number of projects in New Zealand and beyond. Stirling is a core team member of the MBIE-funded national seismic hazard model (NSHM) update, which will produce a new NSHM by the end of 2021.

The last update to the model was almost 10 years ago (Stirling et al. 2012), with an update of the Dunedin city area in recent years (Villamor et al., 2018).

Additional activities are: leading the development of magnitude-frequency distributions for major active faults in Japan as part of SSHAC level 3 studies for the Ikata nuclear power plant; undertaking reviews of seismic hazard models for the insurance/reinsurance sector; and using the age and fragility of fragile geologic features to develop and test seismic hazard models. The latter studies have been conducted for the Clyde Dam in New Zealand (the first-ever application of fragile geologic features to design loadings; see image), and for the Diablo Canyon power plant in California.

We hope to commence a major EQC-funded study this year, which will be in collaboration with Caroline Orchiston of the Centre for Sustainability. The multi-year project will address the seismic hazard and risk of the scientifically-neglected Southland province. The distribution of active faults and seismic hazard show anomalous gaps in Southland that are likely to be due to a lack of resourcing to that area, rather than due to real physical differences in seismotectonics and hazard.

Himalayan Frontal Thrust

Himalayas image

We have embarked on a collaborative project with Tribhuven University in Nepal to characterize the seismic potential of the Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT), the present boundary of the Indian and Eurasian plates.

We will constrain the dip on the fault to determine the net slip on the fault plane that accompanies the c.7m single-event throws that have been measured on the fault.

Determining the amount of slip on the fault during major HFT earthquakes is important for seismic hazard, as the amount of displacement can be used to estimate the total length and width of the fault rupture.

It is currently unknown as to whether the fault is capable of Mw>9 events, but if the fault dip is shallow (e.g. 20°) a c.7m throw could easily translate to about 20m net slip, rupture length of hundreds of km, and Mw>9.

Seismic safety of University buildings

University of Otago’s Seismic Programme Advisory Group is charged with reviewing the seismic safety of University buildings, and providing solutions for addressing significant discrepancies with respect to the New Zealand Loadings standard (Standards New Zealand, 2004).

Over 50 buildings show significant discrepancies, and these are a mix of 19th and 20th Century buildings. The most extreme cases are being prioritised, with plans being developed for the relocation of occupants, and in some cases, eventual demolishment of the building.

We have also developed a site class map for the University campus (see image, c/- Alex Zhou), which will inform the likely site response during large earthquakes, and the seismic instrumentation of buildings for rapid assessment of building damage when a large local earthquake occurs.

Seismic safety map of Otago campus image


The Otago Earthquake Science Group is now in its fourth year of operation, and in this time we have mainly focused on addressing issues relating to the largely under-studied and under-appreciated seismic hazard of southern New Zealand. Our current work streams effectively cover the spectrum of seismic hazard work, from field-based characterisations of active faults, through development of seismic source models, seismic hazard modelling, and ground motion simulations from local earthquake sources. A big goal of our work will also be to apply the lessons learned from these efforts to low seismicity regions elsewhere in New Zealand, and beyond.


We wish to thank EQC, Contact Energy Ltd, QuakeCoRE, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, Geoscience Australia, AIR Worldwide, University of Otago and University of Canterbury for their support of the various projects summarized above.

Thanks also goes to the various donors who have made the Chair position possible.

We also acknowledge the following colleagues for their valuable collaborations thus far: Norm Abrahamson; Matt Gerstenberger; David Barrell; Andrew Gorman; Nicola Litchfield; Russ van Dissen; Chris Madugo; Peter Silvester; Seokho Jeong; Andy Nicol; Bill Fry; Ting Wang; Pilar Villamor; Erin Todd; Jonathan Griffin; Ella van den Berg; Jack Williams; Katrina Sauer; Grace Duke; Samantha Allan; Steve Wesnousky; and Deepak Chamlagain. Lastly, we acknowledge the significant contributions to understanding the seismotectonics of Otago from the late Richard Norris. His work has stimulated some of our present research activities.


Litchfield N.J., P.Villamor, R. J. Van Dissen, A. Nicol, P.M. Barnes, D.J. A. Barrell, J.R. Pettinga, R.M. Langridge, T.A. Little, J.J. Mountjoy, W.F. Ries, J.Rowland, C.Fenton, M.W. Stirling, J. Kearse, K.R. Berryman, U.A. Cochran, K.J. Clark, M. Hemphill-Haley, N. Khajavi, K. E. Jones, G. Archibald, P. Upton, C. Asher, A. Benson, S. C. Cox, C. Gasston, D. Hale, B. Hall, A.E. Hatem, D.W. Heron, J. Howarth, T.J. Kane, G. Lamarche, S. Lawson, B. Lukovic, S.T. McColl, C. Madugo, J. Manousakis, D. Noble, K. Pedley, K. Sauer, T. Stahl, D. T. Strong, D. B. Townsend, V. Toy, J. Williams, S. Woelz, and Robert Zinke, 2018. Surface rupture of multiple crustal faults in the 2016 Mw7.8 Kaikoura, New Zealand earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
DOI: 10.1785/0120170300

Standards New Zealand, 2004. Structural design actions–Part 5: Earthquake actions—New Zealand, New Zealand Standard NZS 1170.5, Dept. Building and Housing, Wellington, New Zealand.

Stirling, M. W., G. H. McVerry, and K. R. Berryman, 2002. A new seismic hazard model of New Zealand, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 92, 1878–1903.

Stirling, M.W.; McVerry, G.H.; Gerstenberger, M.C.; Litchfield, N.J.; Van Dissen, R.J.; Berryman, K.R.; Barnes, P.; Wallace, L.M.; Villamor, P.; Langridge, R.M.; Lamarche, G.; Nodder, S.; Reyners, M.E.; Bradley, B.; Rhoades, D.A.; Smith, W.D.; Nicol, A.; Pettinga, J.; Clark, K.J.; Jacobs, K., 2012. National seismic hazard model for New Zealand : 2010 update. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 102(4): 1514-1542;
DOI: 10.1785/0120110170

Stirling M.W., Litchfield, N.J.,, Villamor, P., Van Dissen, R.J., Nicol, A., Pettinga, J., Barnes, P., Langridge, R.M., Little, T., Barrell, D.J.A., Mountjoy, J., Ries, W.F., Rowland, J., Fenton, C., Hamling, I., Asher, C., Barrier, A., Benson, A., Bischoff, A., Borella, J., Carne, R., Cochran, U.A., Cockroft, M., Cox, S.C., Duke, G., Fenton, F., Gasston, C., Grimshaw, C., Hale, D., Hall, B., Hao, K.X., Hatem, A., Hemphill-Haley, M., Heron, D.W., Howarth, J., Juniper, Z., Kane, T., Kearse, J., Khajavi, N., Lamarche, G., Lawson, S., Lukovic, B., Madugo, C., Manousakis, I., McColl, S., Noble, D., Pedley, K., Sauer, K., Stahl, T., Strong, D.T., Townsend, D.B., Toy, V., Villeneuve, M., Wandres, A., Williams, J., Woelz, S. and Zinke, R., 2017.The Mw7.8 2016 Kaikōura earthquake: Surface fault rupture and seismic hazard context. Bulletin of the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering, 50(2): 73-84. ISSN 1174-9857.

Todd, E., Stirling, M.W., Fry, B., Salichon, J., and Villamor, P. 2020. Characterising microseismicity in a low seismicity region: applications of short-term broadband seismic arrays in Dunedin, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics (in press).

Taylor-Silva, B.I., Stirling, M.W., Litchfield, N.J., Griffin, J.D., van den Berg, E.J., & Wang, N. 2019. Paleoseismology of the Akatore Fault, Otago, New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics.
DOI: 10.1080/00288306.2019.1645706

Villamor, P., Barrell, D.A., Gorman, A., Davy, B., Fry, B., Hreinsdottir, S., Hamling, I., Stirling, M., Cox, S., Litchfield, N., Holt, A., Todd, E., Denys, P., Pearson, C., Sangster, C., Garcia-Mayordomo, J., Goded, T., Abbott, E., Ohneiser, C., Lepine, P., Caratori-Tontini, F.. 2018, Unknown faults under cities. Lower Hutt (NZ): GNS Science. 71p. (GNS Science miscellaneous series 124). doi:10.21420/G2PW7X
Williams, J.N., Barrell, D.J.A., Stirling, M.W., Sauer, K.M., Duke, G.C., and Hao, K.X. 2018. Surface Rupture of the Hundalee Fault during the 2016 Mw 7.8 Kaikōura Earthquake. Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
DOI: 10.1785/0120170291