Master of Disaster student explores Chatham Islands tsunami risk

18 August 2017

Low-lying, isolated communities on the Chatham Islands are extremely exposed to tsunami, according to a University of Canterbury student’s original research.

  • Chatham

    Pictured near Owenga wharf, Chatham Islands, University of Canterbury student Kristie-Lee Thomas is “GPS-ing infrastructure and collecting asset attributes for the impact assessment” for her Master of Science in Disaster Risk and Resilience thesis.


Kristie-Lee Thomas inspects a bridge near the main Chatham Islands township, Waitangi.

Low-lying, isolated communities on the Chatham Islands are extremely exposed to tsunami, according to a University of Canterbury student’s original research. The Chathams will be the first place in New Zealand to be struck by tsunami events generated from earthquakes on the South American subduction zone – one of the most frequent sources of tsunami for New Zealand.

Kristie-Lee Thomas, who grew up on the Chatham Islands and traces her whakapapa back to the islands’ early settlement, is conducting research for and with the Chatham Islands community as part of her Master of Science in Disaster Risk and Resilience thesis at UC Geological Sciences with support from ECan, NIWA and GNS Science.

Kristie-Lee aims to assess potential impacts of future tsunami to lifeline infrastructure and emergency services on the Chatham Islands to inform readiness, response and recovery initiatives. She was one of four UC Disaster Risk and Resilience students invited on the JENESYS Programme, a disaster resilience study tour of Japan, by the Japanese Embassy in December 2016.

For her thesis, Kristie-Lee has been exploring tangata whenua knowledge and oral histories about previous tsunami events and their impacts to the Chatham Islands. 

She has found information about the impacts of the fatally destructive 1868 tsunami on the Chatham Islands from tangata whenua knowledge, old newspapers, stories and archive items that have not previously been brought to light. 

“This is really exciting as it’s revealing knowledge which hasn’t been recorded in previous tsunami hazard and risk reviews and studies,” she says.

“By better understanding the impacts of previous tsunami, it better informs what likely impacts future tsunami may have.”

Her project was developed through discussions with local iwi, infrastructure personnel, the local emergency management officer and scientists involved in tsunami projects on the Chatham Islands.

Tsunami evacuation planning and other disaster risk reduction initiatives are under way on the Chatham Islands.

“This project is part of this work, helping to better understand which societal elements are exposed to tsunami, their vulnerabilities, capacities, and what potential impacts a future tsunami event may have on the isolated community to inform future disaster planning,” Kristie-Lee says.

Her research involves investigating where tsunami have inundated the islands in the past, including 1868, 1924, 1946, 1947 and 1960 events, and the likely future impacts on emergency services and lifeline infrastructure – which are vital in such an isolated place.

Kristie-Lee says this information will then be shared during a community workshop to bring about community-led action to reduce vulnerability to future tsunami.

Her thesis supervisors include UC Disaster Risk and Resilience Associate Professor Thomas Wilson, Dr Matthew Hughes of UC Civil and Natural Resources Engineering, and UC Natural Hazards Professor Tim Davies, as well as Helen Jack from ECan, Dr Kate Crowley, Dr Emily Lane and Darren King from NIWA, and Dr Graham Leonard and Professor David Johnston from GNS Science.

Kristie-Lee’s research is supported by Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri Iwi Trust, Chatham Islands Council, Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust, Canterbury Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) Group, and is sponsored by UC’s Ngāi Tahu Research Centre, EQC and the National Science Challenge: Resilience to Nature’s Challenge.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 27 254
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