Fragile Aotearoa

Terrible news this morning coming out of what is for me the old country. New Zealand is where I spent the best part, and indeed only happy part, of my childhood, and the sights, sounds, cultures and peoples of that land are burned indellibly into my synapses.

My home town, Dunedin, is several hundred kilometres to the south of Christchurch, the city hit yesterday by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake, leading to scores of deaths and massive structural damage. And this less than a year since the region suffered a 7.1 magnitude quake, though mercifully then with no deaths, and relatively few injuries, only two of which were serious. This time around, the epicentre was right underneath the city itself, and at a very shallow depth.

Aotearoa lies on the so-called Ring of Fire, where the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates meet, and earthquakes frequently occur. South Island is in the transition between the subduction zone – where the Pacific plate is dragged down beneath the lighter Indo-Australian plate – and the ocean to the south of the country, where the process is reversed. In the transition zone, the two tectonic plates slide past each other, and frictional slippage gives rise to earthquakes ranging from frequent small tremours to much larger events such as the earthquake yesterday in Christchurch.

Dunedin, despite being on the other side of the South Island landmass from the Alpine fault line, experiences earth tremors, and I can testify to the fear and exhilaration to which these mini-quakes give rise. The earth beneath one’s feet is not so solid as it normally appears.

Let us hope that the inevitable aftershocks from yesterday’s earthquake in Christchurch are small and short lived.