It's Wellington's fault


Wellington, earthquake capital of the world

Wellington, capital of New Zealand and home for almost all of my years, is famous for being one of the most windy cities in the world, and also one of the most earthquake prone, situated on the very juncture between the restless Pacific and Australian tectonic plates. Unlike Aucklanders to the north, likely to be woken by a passing truck, or anything greater than a passing breeze, the average Wellingtonian fails to register anything less than the "Big One", as they call it, a magnitude 7 or greater on the Richter scale upheaval expected every one hundred and fifty years, and in the Harbour Capital, now officially overdue.

"Is it the Big One, do you think?", a Wellingtonian will question out loud, during an earthquake.

"No, the roof hasn't come down yet, so we seem to be o.k."

The last major earthquake occurred on 23 January 1855, a kind of Happy Birthday present on the day of the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Wellington, and measured a massive 8.2 on the Richter scale. It is worth noting at this point that the Richter scale, invented as a measure of earthquake magnitude in 1935 by Charles Richter of the California Institute of Technology, is logarithmic, meaning that, and I did look this up, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude, and as an estimate of energy, about 31 times more energy than the preceding whole number value.

Wellington, 1850

Wellington in 1850

Which is to say that a magnitude eight earthquake, unless very very deep below the earth's surface, is a once in a lifetime event—and quite often a life-ending one.

The 1855 quake was New Zealand's biggest ever recorded earthquake, touch splintering wood, lasted for almost a minute, and released an energy pulse 1,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

A civil engineer, William Bennett, gave this account of the earthquake from inside an Oriental Bay boarding house:

"Suddenly it gave a very extraordinary shake, which seemed to continue, and was accompanied by a fearful noise." The shaking increased in violence and was accompanied by a roaring "as if a large number of cannon were being fired near together." It was like being in "an ill-adjusted railway carriage on a badly laid railway at a very high speed."

The aftermath of the earthquake was described as worse than a battle scene by one survivor:

"if Wellington had been subject to six hours of bombardment from the Russian fleet [the Crimean War was raging at the time] it could not have suffered to the same extent."

Remarkably, in a population numbering less than ten thousand, the estimated death toll was between only five and ten, and only one in the city itself—a Baron von Alzdorf, who died beneath a falling brick chimney in his own hotel. Local legend recounts, in something of a tale of just desserts, that von Alzdorf had refused to build his hotel from timber despite much advice, advice offered on account of the magnitude 7 earthquake of 1848, seven years before, which had destroyed all brick and stone buildings, but largely left wooden dwellings untouched. Today, all buildings in Wellington are required to meet earthquake resistance standards, and much of the technology to allow buildings to withstand the motion of earthquakes, including foundations made of rubber, was invented in this very city.

The poor Baron aside, the 1855 earthquake actually had some unexpected benefits, as well as a ten metre tsunami wave, in that it forced land upwards by two to three metres in places, including turning a portion of the harbour into a tidal swamp. Much of this land was subsequently reclaimed, and now forms a large portion of Wellington's central business district and airport.

John in Wellington

Still above water, last time I looked

Despite, or maybe because of being a city very much "on the edge", Wellington was ranked this year as having the twelfth best quality of living in the world, and of cities with English as the primary language, stands fourth. Known as the artistic and party capital of New Zealand, I can't help but be reminded of the image of a spectacular party occurring on the decks of the Titanic, iceberg rushing onwards...

We were struck by an earthquake one evening during a Wellington Sri Chinmoy Centre meeting, right in the middle of singing a song, and despite the possibility that the reclaimed waterfront beneath us was liquefying as we sang, stoically continued, not quite oblivious to the violently trembling building around us.

And so, when a sharp jolt struck here in volcanic Auckland the other night at 3.05am, I must admit that, compared to the shocks and tremors that are commonplace in Wellington, it didn't even register...

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