Liquefaction: Lessons from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake

Misko Cubrinovski, from the University of Canterbury's School of Engineering, studies...
Misko Cubrinovski, from the University of Canterbury's School of Engineering, studies liquefaction and lateral spreading on Oxford Terrace, after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Photo: University of Canterbury
Misko Cubrinovski has spent his professional career studying liquefaction caused by earthquakes, but even he was surprised by how widespread and extensive the effects of liquefaction were following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

“Probably it is the largest urban liquefaction on record in the world.”

On February 22, 2011, Christchurch experienced a severe earthquake resulting in much loss of lives, destruction … and liquefaction.

Bexley was flooded with silt and water forced up through the weakened ground by liquefaction...
Bexley was flooded with silt and water forced up through the weakened ground by liquefaction following the February 22, 2011, earthquake. Photo: File
Misko Cubrinovski, a University of Canterbury geotechnical earthquake engineer, explains that liquefaction is the result of a solid medium - soil - turning into a fluid medium due to violent shaking.

Soils that are susceptible to liquefaction are generally sandy, silty or gravelly, and have to be saturated with water.

These loose, wet soils densify as a result of earthquake shaking, which creates pressure in the groundwater.

This high pressure water forces soil particles apart and the soil loses its structure, says Misko, becoming a viscous fluid.

Liquefaction in the Christchurch red zone. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski
Liquefaction in the Christchurch red zone. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski
Liquefaction develops very quickly during strong earthquakes.

“During the February 2011 earthquake,” says Misko, “it took two, three, four seconds to liquefy the loose soil in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch.”

“Then there is a period of a minute or two when that effect of liquefaction remains very strong during which large deformations and effects occur. And then it takes hours or even days for the soil to get back to its equilibrium.”

Misko says that Christchurch is still experiencing the significant consequences of liquefaction 10 years after it occurred.

Lateral spreading happens when liquefaction stretches and tears the ground. This example happened...
Lateral spreading happens when liquefaction stretches and tears the ground. This example happened during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Photo: Sarah Bastin
While liquefaction can extend 15-20 metres deep, it’s most damaging consequences happen close to the ground surface, in the top five metres, says Misko.

Misko helped map and study liquefaction in Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake.

He says one of the most significant discoveries from the research was that “liquefaction at large depths can prevent manifestation of liquefaction effects on the ground surface.”

A deep layer of liquefaction acts as an isolation mechanism, preventing earthquake waves from reaching shallower soils.

He says this finding explained why some areas of the city that contained liquefiable soils sustained much less damage than expected.

Misko is interested in how buildings and other structures such as pipes respond to shaking and liquefaction.

Misko is part of the Quakecore Centre of Research Excellence.

He was involved in Scirt – the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team - which was created immediately after the 2011 earthquakes to rebuild Christchurch's damaged horizontal infrastructure, such as water and sewage pipes.

Soon after the earthquake, he provided a liquefaction zoning map and other advice to help identify the best places to site new pipes.

Listen to the full podcast to hear more about ways to create more resilient horizontal infrastructure, and the liquefaction risk posed by reclaimed land on the Wellington waterfront.

More RNZ podcasts - Lessons from a shaky decade
A decade of earthquakes - Darfield. Christchurch. Cook Strait. Kaikōura. In the past decade, New Zealand has experienced four major earthquakes. Three GNS Science seismologists recollect their experience of the Big Ones and talk about the lessons we have learned from these ten shaky years.

Preparing for the next big quake - University of Canterbury earthquake engineer Brendon Bradley says we can’t predict when and where earthquakes will occur, but “we do have probabilistic models that tell us the likelihood that certain faults are going to rupture over a certain period of time.”

Designing low damage buildings - Low-damage buildings don't just save lives in an earthquake, says Geoff Rodgers - they are designed to be resilient so they can stay in use.

What we do during an earthquake and why it matters David Johnston says that when it comes to earthquakes, sometimes doing nothing is a safer option than taking the wrong action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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