Author Archives: Megan Arnold

About Megan Arnold

Product Manager, Model Product Management
As a member of the Model Product Management team, Megan manages the development, delivery, and subject matter support of earthquake models. She is currently focused on the New Zealand Earthquake HD Model while managing the Europe Earthquake Model and global earthquake hazard data products. Megan holds a Bachelor’s of Science in geology from Bates College and the RMS Certified Catastrophe Risk Analyst (CCRA®) designation.

Earthquake Hazard: What Has New Zealand’s Kaikoura Earthquake Taught Us So Far?

The northeastern end of the South Island is a tectonically complex region with the plate motion primarily accommodated through a series of crustal faults. On November 14, as the Kaikoura earthquake shaking began, multiple faults ruptured at the same time culminating in a Mw 7.8 event (as reported by GNS Science).

The last two weeks have been busy for earthquake modelers. The paradox of our trade is that while we exist to help avoid the damage this natural phenomenon causes, the only way we can fully understand this hazard is to see it in action so that we can refine our understanding and check that our science provides the best view of risk. Since November 14 we have been looking at what Kaikoura tells us about our latest, high-definition New Zealand Earthquake model, which was designed to handle such complex events.

Multiple-Segment Ruptures

With the Kaikoura earthquake’s epicenter at the southern end of the faults identified, the rupture process moved from south to north along this series of interlinked faults (see graphic below). Multi-fault rupture is not unique to this event as the same process occurred during the 2010 Mw 7.2 Darfield Earthquake. Such ruptures are important to consider in risk modeling as they produce events of larger magnitude, and therefore affect a larger area, than individual faults would on their own.

Map showing the faults identified by GNS Sciences as experiencing surface fault rupture in the Kaikoura Earthquake.
Source: +land%3A+observations+from+the+air

In keeping with the latest scientific thinking, the New Zealand Earthquake HD Model provides an expanded suite of events that represent complex ruptures along multiple faults. For now, these are included only for areas of high slip fault segments in regions with exposure concentrations, but their addition increases the robustness of the tail of the Exceedance Probability curve, meaning clients get a better view of the risk of the most damaging, but lower probability events.

Landsliding and Liquefaction

While most property damage has been caused directly by shaking, infrastructure has been heavily impacted by landsliding and, to a lesser extent, liquefaction. Landslides and slumps have occurred across the region, most notably over Highway 1, an arterial route. The infrastructure impacts of the Kaikoura earthquake are a likely dress rehearsal for the expected event on the Alpine Fault. This major fault runs 600 km along the western coast of the South Island and is expected to produce an Mw 8+ event with a probability of 30% in the next 50 years, according to GNS Science.

As many as 80 – 100,000 landslides have been reported in the upper South Island, with some creating temporary dams over rivers and in some cases temporary lakes (see below). These dams can fail catastrophically, sending a sudden increase of water flow down the river.



Examples of rivers blocked by landslides photographed by GNS Science researchers.

Source: Landslides+and+Landslide+dams+caused +by+the+Kaikoura+Earthquake









Liquefaction occurred in discrete areas across the region impacted by the Kaikoura earthquake. The Port of Wellington experienced both lateral and vertical deformation likely due to liquefaction processes in reclaimed land. There have been reports of liquefaction near the upper South Island towns (Blenheim, Seddon, Ward), but liquefaction will not be a driver of loss in the Kaikoura event to the extent it was in the Christchurch earthquake sequence.

RMS’ New Zealand Earthquake HD Model includes a new liquefaction component that was derived using the immense amount of new borehole data collected after the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence in 2010-2011. This new methodology considers additional parameters, such as depth to the groundwater table and soil-strength characteristics, that lead to better estimates of lateral and vertical displacement. The HD model is the first probabilistic model with a landslide susceptibility component for New Zealand.


The Kaikoura Earthquake generated tsunami waves that were observed in Kaikoura at 2.5m, Christchurch at 1m, and Wellington at 0.5m. The tsunami waves arrived in Kaikoura significantly earlier than in Christchurch and Wellington indicating that the tsunami was generated near Kaikoura. The waves were likely generated by offshore faulting, but also may be associated with submarine landsliding. Fortunately, the scale of the tsunami waves did not produce significant damage. RMS’ latest New Zealand Earthquake HD Model captures tsunami risk due to local ocean bottom deformation caused by fault rupture, and is the first model in the New Zealand market to do this, that is built from a fully hydrodynamic model.

Next Generation Earthquake Modeling at RMS

Thankfully the Kaikoura earthquake seems to have produced damage that is lower than we might have seen had it hit a more heavily populated area of New Zealand with greater exposures – for detail on damage please see my other blog on this event.

But what Kaikoura has told us is that our latest HD model offers an advanced view of risk. Released only in September 2016, it was designed to handle such a complex event as the Kaikoura earthquake, featuring multiple-segment ruptures, a new liquefaction model at very high resolution, and the first landslide susceptibility model for New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Kaikoura Earthquake: What Have We Learned So Far About Damage?

The Kaikoura Earthquake of November 14 occurred in a relatively low population region of New Zealand, situated between Christchurch and Wellington. The largest town close to the epicentral region is Blenheim, with a population near 30,000.

Early damage reports indicate there has been structural damage in the northern part of the South Island as well as to numerous buildings in Wellington. While most of this has been caused directly by shaking, infrastructure and ports across the affected region have been heavily impacted by landsliding and, to a lesser extent, liquefaction. Landslides and slumps have occurred across the northeastern area of the South Island, most notably over Highway 1, severing land routes to Kaikoura – a popular tourist destination.

The picture of damage is still unfolding as access to badly affected areas improves. At RMS we have been comparing what we have learned from this earthquake to the view of risk provided by our new, high-definition New Zealand Earthquake model, which is designed to improve damage assessment and loss quantification at location-level resolution.

No Damage to Full Damage

The earthquake shook a relatively low population area of the South Island and, while it was felt keenly in Christchurch, there have been no reports of significant damage in the city. The earthquake ruptured approximately 150 km along the coast, propagating north towards Wellington. The capital experienced ground shaking intensities at the threshold for damage, producing façade and internal, non-structural damage in the central business district. Although the shaking intensities were close to those experienced during the Cook Strait sequence in 2013, which mostly affected short and mid-rise structures, the longer duration and frequency content of the larger magnitude Kaikoura event has caused more damage to taller structures which have longer natural periods.

From: Wellington City Council

Within Wellington, cordons are currently in place around a few buildings in the CBD (see above) as engineers carry out more detailed inspections. Some are being demolished or are set to be, including a nine-story structure on Molesworth Street and three city council buildings. It should be noted that most of the damage has been to buildings on reclaimed land close to the harbor where ground motions were likely amplified by the underlying sediments.

From:; The building on Molesworth street before the earthquake (L) and on Tuesday (R).

From:; The building on Molesworth street before the earthquake (L) and after on November 16 (R).

Isolated incidences of total damage in an area of otherwise minor damage demonstrate why RMS is moving to the new HD financial modeling framework. The RMS RiskLink approach applies a low mean damage ratio across the area, whereas RMS HD damage functions allow for zero or total loss – as well as a distribution in between which is sampled for each event for each location. The HD financial modeling framework is able to capture a more realistic pattern of gross losses.

Business Interruption

The Kaikoura Earthquake will produce business interruption losses from a variety of causes such as direct property or content damages, relocation costs, or loss of access to essential services (i.e. power and water utilities, information technology) that cripple operations in otherwise structurally sound buildings. How quickly businesses are able to recover depends on how quickly these utilities are restored. Extensive landslide damage to roads means access to Kaikoura itself will be restricted for months. The New Zealand government has announced financial assistance packages for small business to help them through the critical period immediately after the earthquake. Similar assistance was provided to businesses in Christchurch after the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence in 2010-2011.

That earthquake sequence and others around the world have provided valuable insights on business interruption, allowing our New Zealand Earthquake HD model to better capture these impacts. For example, during the Canterbury events, lifelines were found to be repaired much more quickly in urban areas than in rural areas, and areas susceptible to liquefaction were associated with longer down times due to greater damage to underground services. The new business interruption model provides a more accurate assessment of these risks by accounting for the influence of both property and contents damage as well as lifeline downtime.

It remains to be seen how significant any supply chain or contingent business interruption losses will be. Landslide damage to the main road and rail route from Christchurch to the inter-island ferry terminal at Picton has disrupted supply routes across the South Island. Alternative, longer routes with less capacity are available.

Next Generation Earthquake Modeling at RMS

RMS designed the update to its New Zealand Earthquake High Definition (HD) model, released in September 2016, to enhance location-level damage assessment and improve the gross loss quantification with a more realistic HD financial methodology. The model update was validated with billions of dollars of claims data from the 2010-11 Canterbury Earthquake Sequence.

Scientific and industry lessons learned following damaging earthquakes such as last month’s in Kaikoura and the earlier event in Christchurch increase the sophistication and realism of our understanding of earthquake risk, allowing communities and businesses to shift and adapt – so becoming more resilient to future catastrophic events.

Liquefaction: a wider-spread problem than might be appreciated

Everyone has known for decades that New Zealand is at serious risk of earthquakes. In his famous Earthquake Book, Cuthbert Heath, the pioneering Lloyd’s non-marine underwriter, set the rate for Christchurch higher than for almost any other place, back in 1914. Still, underwriters were fairly blasé about the risk until the succession of events in 2010-11 known as the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence (CES).

New Zealand earthquake risk had been written by reinsurers usefully for diversification; it was seen as uncorrelated with much else, and no major loss event had occurred since the Edgecumbe earthquake in 1987. Post-CES, however, the market is unrecognizable. More importantly, perhaps, it taught us a great deal about liquefaction, a soil phenomenon which can multiply the physical damage caused by moderate to large earthquakes, and is a serious hazard in many earthquake zones around the world, particularly those with near water bodies, water courses, and the ocean.

The unprecedented liquefaction observation data collected during the CES made a significant contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon, and the damage it may cause. Important to know is that the risk is not limited to New Zealand. Liquefaction has been a significant cause of damage during recent earthquakes in the United States, such as the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area and the devastating 1964 earthquake in Alaska which produced very serious liquefaction around Anchorage. Unsurprisingly, other parts of the world are also at risk, including the coastal regions of Japan, as seen in the 1995 Kobe and 1964 Niigata earthquakes, and Turkey. The 1999 Izmit earthquake produced liquefaction along the shorelines of Izmit Bay and also in the inland city of Adapazari situated along the Sakarya River. The risk is as high in regions that have not experienced modern earthquakes, such as the Seattle area, and in the New Madrid seismic zone along the Mississippi River.

2011 Lyttelton: observed and learned

Five years ago this week, the magnitude 6.3 Lyttelton (or Christchurch) Earthquake, the most damaging of the sequence, dealt insured losses of more than US $10 billion. It was a complex event both from scientific and industry perspectives. A rupture of approximately 14 kilometers occurred on a previously unmapped, dipping blind fault that trends east to northeast.[1] Although its magnitude was moderate, the rupture generated the strongest ground motions ever recorded in New Zealand. Intensities ranged between 0.6 and 1.0 g in Christchurch’s central business district, where for periods between 0.3 and 5 seconds the shaking exceeded New Zealand’s 500-year design standard.

The havoc wrought by the shaking was magnified by extreme liquefaction, particularly around the eastern suburbs of Christchurch. Liquefaction occurs when saturated, cohesion-less soil loses strength and stiffness in response to a rapidly applied load, and behaves like a liquid. Existing predictive models did not capture well the significant contribution of extreme liquefaction to land and building damage.

Figure 1: The photo on the left shows foundation failure due to liquefaction which caused the columns on the left side of the building to sink. The photo on the right shows a different location with evident liquefaction (note the silt around columns) and foundation settlement.

Structural damage due to liquefaction and landslide accounted for a third of the insured loss to residential dwellings caused by the CES. Lateral spreading and differential settlement of the ground caused otherwise intact structures to tilt beyond repair. New Zealand’s government bought over 7,000 affected residential properties, even though some suffered very little physical damage, and red-zoned entire neighborhoods as too hazardous to build on.

Figure 2: Christchurch Area Residential Red-Zones And Commercial Building Demolitions (Source: Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), March 5, 2015).

Incorporating the learnings from Christchurch into the next model update

A wealth of new borehole data, ground motion recordings, damage statistics, and building forensics reports has contributed to a much greater understanding of earthquake hazard and local vulnerability in New Zealand. RMS, supported by local geotechnical expertise, has used the data to redesign completely how liquefaction is modeled. The RMS liquefaction module now considers more parameters, such as depth to groundwater table and certain soil-strength characteristics, all leading to better predictive capabilities for the estimate of lateral and vertical displacement at specific locations. The module now more accurately assesses potential damage to buildings based on two potential failure modes.

The forthcoming RMS New Zealand Earthquake HD Model includes pre-compiled events that consider the full definition of fault rupture geometry and magnitude. An improved distance-calculation approach enhances near-source ground motion intensity predictions. This new science, and other advances in RMS models, serve a vital role in post-CES best practice for the industry, as it faces more regulatory scrutiny than ever before.

Liquefaction risk around the world

Insurers in New Zealand and around the world are doing more than ever to understand their earthquake exposures, and to improve the quality of their data both for the buildings and the soils underneath them. In tandem, greater market emphasis is being placed on understanding the catastrophe models. Key, is the examination of the scientific basis for different views of risk, characterized by a deep questioning of the assumptions embedded within models. In the spotlight of ever-increasing scrutiny from regulators and stakeholders, businesses must now be able to articulate the drivers of their risk, and demonstrate that they are in compliance with solvency requirements. Reference to Cuthbert Heath’s rate—or the hazard as assessed last year—is no longer enough.

[1] Bradley BA, Cubrinovski M.  Near-source strong ground motions observed in the 22 February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake.  Seismological Research Letters 2011. Vol. 82 No. 6, pp 853-865.