An earthquake occurs when there is a sudden release of energy within the earth’s crust. New Zealand sits on the boundary between the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, means that we get a large number of earthquakes. The main plate boundary passes to the south and east of the North Island. The Wellington region is crossed by a number of major faults, including the Wairarapa, Wellington and Ohariu faults.
What to do
See Drop, Cover, Hold for information on safe places in an earthquake.
If you feel an earthquake that is either longer than a minute OR strong enough that it’s hard to stand up THEN get to high ground, out of all zones (past the blue line), as soon as the shaking stops!
Effects of earthquakes
Liquefaction happens where some soils, particularly silt or sandy soils, become saturated as a result of ground shaking, which causes the soil to lose strength.
Most injuries in an earthquake are caused by falling objects or debris like furniture, wall hangings, glass, and building materials, rather than collapsing buildings. Most buildings will remain standing during a large earthquake.
Fire Following Earthquake (FFE)
After a large earthquake, there is likely to be damage to buildings and infrastructure. This can mean that there is more opportunity for a fire to start and spread. On rare occasions, a fire which starts following an earthquake can develop into a serious emergency.
Safe places in an earthquake
- If you are inside a building, move no more than a few steps, drop, cover and hold. Stay indoors - you do not have to evacuate a building straight away unless it is showing obvious signs of distress.
- If you are outdoors when the shaking starts, move no more than a few steps away from buildings, trees, street lights, and power lines, then drop, cover and hold.
- If you are on a sidewalk in a busy urban environment, either get into an entryway or foyer of a building and drop, cover and hold, or move into a clear wide street, but be careful of traffic and falling objects, then drop, cover and hold.
- If you are at the beach or near the coast, drop, cover and hold then move to higher ground immediately in case a tsunami follows the quake. If there is a blue line, go past the line.
- If you are driving, pull over to a clear location, stop and stay there with your seatbelt fastened until the shaking stops. Once the shaking stops, proceed with caution and avoid bridges or ramps that might have been damaged.
- If you are in a mountainous area or near unstable slopes or cliffs, be alert for falling debris or landslides.
In modern homes, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the structure and usually have doors that can swing and injure you. Drop, cover and hold is recommended for New Zealand buildings.
Historical earthquakes in the Wellington region
The Wellington region has been subject to a number of large earthquakes in the past 175 years. New Zealand’s largest ever earthquake was the magnitude 8.2–8.3 quake that struck on 23 January 1855. The earthquake caused damage to the city including uplift of the harbour, a tsunami in the Wellington harbour and numerous landslides around the region.
In 1942 the Wairarapa was shaken by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on 24 June and then a 7.0 on 2 August, both caused extensive local damage.
In 2013 two earthquakes measuring 6.5 and 6.6 magnitude occurred on 21 July and 16 August. These earthquakes caused some damage to buildings in Wellington City and around the region.
On 14 November 2016 a complex magnitude 7.8 earthquake, caused by rupture on multiple faults across north Canterbury and Kaikōura. These earthquakes caused damage to buildings in Wellington City, Hutt City and around the region.
Frequency of earthquakes
The Wellington region is regularly shaken by small and medium-sized earthquakes. A large or very large earthquake on a fault in the region would result in deaths, injuries and considerable disruption to lifelines and infrastructure. Large (magnitude 7+) events are thought to occur once every 500 years and very large (magnitude 8+) events every 1000 or more years. Earthquakes are the highest risk hazard in the region due to the potential for catastrophic damage.
Find out more
Further information on earthquakes is available from:
- It's Our Fault (GNS Science)
- Science Topics: Earthquakes (GNS Science)
- Quakes (Geonet)
- Active Faults (Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
- Earthquakes (Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
- Historic Earthquakes (Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand)
- Hikurangi Subduction Zone Earthquakes and Slip Behaviour project and video recording of public talk (East Coast LAB)