UC scientists predict road landslide quake risk

12 November 2015

UC scientists have developed a technique to predict the risk of landslides in an earthquake.

UC scientists predict road landslide quake risk

A landslide in the Southern Alps.

University of Canterbury (UC) scientists have developed a technique to predict the risk of landslides in an earthquake, and have used it to assess what will happen to the South Island highway network when the Alpine Fault ruptures.

UC PhD graduate Tom Robinson investigated what would happen in a magnitude 8.0 event on the Alpine Fault, which has about a one-in-three to one-in-four chance of occurring in the next 50 years.

His research shows the most serious landslide damage would be to the proposed Haast-Hollyford highway. 

“Just by building this road, we would increase our level of risk for roads to an Alpine Fault earthquake by at least 50%, despite the highway only increasing total network length by three percent. This work shows that, if constructed, the highway would be the worst affected road when the Alpine Fault ruptures, potentially worse even than Arthur’s Pass.”

UC Natural Hazards Professor Tim Davies, Dr Robinson’s PhD supervisor, says the main objective of the research was to test the applicability of the new technique, which was earlier developed by Dr Robinson and another UC PhD graduate.

“However, by applying the technique to a scenario magnitude 8.0 earthquake, the Alpine Fault, the research can make a difference by aiding infrastructure planners in managing the landslide risks to proposed highway links.”

Dr Robinson’s research was recently published in the international scientific journal Georisk, and can be used to assess landslides in any scenario earthquake worldwide.

He is now working as a post-doctoral researcher at Durham University, and is using his technique to assess infrastructure vulnerabilities in South Island roads, rail and power transmission. 

Dr Robinson is also currently using this technique in Nepal to try to understand what the level of risk is to critical infrastructure links.

“Some of the challenges faced by Nepal are similar to those we face in New Zealand, but the capacity to deal with the outcomes is substantially lower there. I’m hoping to be able to use this technique in Nepal to show how they can streamline pre- and post-earthquake efforts to be as effective and efficient as possible. Identifying which roads are likely to be blocked either prior to or immediately after an earthquake can save considerable time when assessing which regions require emergency assistance.”

A master’s student at UC is also using the technique to investigate the landslide consequences of earthquakes on other West Coast fault lines. 

For more information contact:

Professor Tim Davies, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Canterbury

Ph: (03) 364-2987 ext 7502



Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Ph: (03) 364 2775
Mobile: 027 5030 168

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