Earth-shaking research on solid ground

A long-running programme of seismological research at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington has not only helped reveal the secrets behind New Zealand’s shifting landscape, it has trained the next generation of earthquake scientists.

Dr Calum Chamberlain in the field
Dr Calum Chamberlain in the field

At the centre is Professor John Townend from the School of Geography, Environment, and Earth Sciences, who first joined the University in 2003 after completing his PhD at Stanford University and took on the position of Earthquake Commission (EQC) Fellow in Seismic Studies, first established at the University in 1994.

This position had been supported by EQC since the mid-1990s, and EQC has continued to support seismological research at the University ever since, most recently granting three years of new funding to the renamed EQC Programme in Seismology and Tectonic Geodesy led by Professor Townend earlier this year.

“What makes this programme so strong is that it involves experienced scientists at the University and at GNS Science, and early-career researchers and graduate students who are really driving the innovation,” Professor Townend says.

Providing opportunities for up-and-coming scientists is incredibly important to the seismology research programme.

“More than 40 postgraduate students have worked on this research programme in the last few years,” Professor Townend says. “They do amazing things while they’re students here and then they go on to great things elsewhere.”

Recent MSc and PhD graduates have been employed by organisations as diverse as UC Berkeley, the MetService, NASA, GNS Science, and specialist consultancy firms.

“Training graduate students has been a big focus of this programme for more than 25 years. EQC also funds much of the GeoNet geohazard monitoring system, and producing well-trained science graduates who can analyse and interpret high-quality GeoNet data and inform New Zealand about the hazards we face really completes the loop.”

“Data collected by GeoNet sensors underpin the National Geohazard Monitoring Centre’s 24/7 monitoring capability and situational awareness. However, those data also need really careful analysis to ensure we understand what makes New Zealand tick and the hazards that we face.”

For the students, working in this area is a chance not only to gain skills in seismology and other branches of geophysics, but also in new methods of computational data science and remote fieldwork, Professor Townend says.

Recent funding from EQC for the programme will provide for six Master’s scholarships.

“The students who receive these scholarships will be using data from GeoNet and sensor networks we operate ourselves to study earthquake processes throughout New Zealand,” Professor Townend says. “Their results will feed into many other strands of research and ultimately inform everything from seismic hazard models to the most fundamental understanding of earthquake phenomena.”

“New Zealand’s ability to withstand geological perils relies on a really robust understanding of processes occurring deep underground, which we develop by studying different parts of the country in great detail.”

As well as these scholarships, Professor Townend has coordinated many different projects as part of the programme over the years. These have included work by former PhD student and now postdoctoral fellow Dr Calum Chamberlain to develop new methods for detecting and characterising very small earthquakes, research into the effects of earthquakes on groundwater systems by MSc student Grant O’Brien and PhD student Konrad Weaver, and work using satellite radar data to analyse very large earthquakes undertaken by MSc student Danielle Lindsay and PhD student Pegah Faegh-Lashgary.

“The intertwined goals of our EQC research programme are to develop new insight into earthquake processes and the hazards they pose, using high-quality data from GeoNet and building on strong links with GNS Science and research partners worldwide, and equipping new scientists with the skills required to interpret ever-expanding data sets using ever more sophisticated techniques.”

Professor Townend has also seen a number of personal successes in his time working with the University and EQC, with highlights such as co-leading the Alpine Fault Deep Fault Drilling Project since 2009 and serving in 2018 as one of five international experts reviewing a damaging earthquake triggered by geothermal operations in South Korea. He was elected President-Elect of the Seismological Society of America earlier this year and will begin his presidential tenure in April 2021.