Geologic and anthropogenic influences on rockfall and liquefaction in the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes and their prehistoric predecessors.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Geologic phenomena produced by earthquake shaking, including rockfalls and liquefaction features, provide important information on the intensity and spatiotemporal distribution of earthquake ground motions. The study of rockfall and liquefaction features produced in contemporary well- instrumented earthquakes increases our knowledge of how natural and anthropogenic environments respond to earthquakes and improves our ability to deduce seismologic information from analogous pre-contemporary (paleo-) geologic features. The study of contemporary and paleo- rockfall and liquefaction features enables improved forecasting of environmental responses to future earthquakes. In this thesis I utilize a combination of field and imagery-based mapping, trenching, stratigraphy, and numerical dating techniques to understand the nature and timing of rockfalls (and hillslope sedimentation) and liquefaction in the eastern South Island of New Zealand, and to examine the influence that anthropogenic activity has had on the geologic expressions of earthquake phenomena.
At Rapaki (Banks Peninsula, NZ), field and imagery-based mapping, statistical analysis and numerical modeling was conducted on rockfall boulders triggered by the fatal 2011 Christchurch earthquakes (n=285) and compared with newly identified prehistoric (Holocene and Pleistocene) boulders (n=1049) deposited on the same hillslope. A significant population of modern boulders (n=26) travelled farther downslope (>150 m) than their most-travelled prehistoric counterparts, causing extensive damage to residential dwellings at the foot of the hillslope. Replication of prehistoric boulder distributions using 3-dimensional rigid body numerical models requires the application of a drag-coefficient, attributed to moderate to dense slope vegetation, to account for their spatial distribution. Radiocarbon dating provides evidence for 17th to early 20th century deforestation at the study site during Polynesian and European colonization and after emplacement of prehistoric rockfalls. Anthropocene deforestation enabled modern rockfalls to exceed the limits of their prehistoric predecessors, highlighting a shift in the geologic expression of rockfalls due to anthropogenic activity.
Optical and radiocarbon dating of loessic hillslope sediments in New Zealand’s South Island is used to constrain the timing of prehistoric rockfalls and associated seismic events, and quantify spatial and temporal patterns of hillslope sedimentation including responses to seismic and anthropogenic forcing. Luminescence ages from loessic sediments constrain timing of boulder emplacement to between ~3.0 and ~12.5 ka, well before the arrival of Polynesians (ca AD 1280) and Europeans (ca AD 1800) in New Zealand, and suggest loess accumulation was continuing at the study site until 12-13 ka. Large (>5 m3) prehistoric rockfall boulders preserve an important record of Holocene hillslope sedimentation by creating local traps for sediment aggradation and upbuilding soil formation. Sediment accumulation rates increased considerably (>~10 factor increase) following human arrival and associated anthropogenic burning of hillslope vegetation. New numerical ages are presented to place the evolution of loess-mantled hillslopes in New Zealand’s South Island into a longer temporal framework and highlight the roles of earthquakes and humans on hillslope surface process.
Extensive field mapping and characterization for 1733 individual prehistoric rockfall boulders was conducted at Rapaki and another Banks Peninsula site, Purau, to understand their origin, frequency, and spatial and volumetric distributions. Boulder characteristics and distributions were compared to 421 boulders deposited at the same sites during the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence. Prehistoric boulders at Rapaki and Purau are comprised of two dominant lithofacies types: volcanic breccia and massive (coherent) lava basalt. Volcanic breccia boulders are found in greatest abundance (64-73% of total mapped rockfall) and volume (~90-96% of total rockfall) at both locations and exclusively comprise the largest boulders with the longest runout distances that pose the greatest hazard to life and property. This study highlights the primary influence that volcanic lithofacies architecture has on rockfall hazard.
The influence of anthropogenic modifications on the surface and subsurface geologic expression of contemporary liquefaction created during the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence (CES) in eastern Christchurch is examined. Trench observations indicate that anthropogenic fill layer boundaries and the composition/texture of discretely placed fill layers play an important role in absorbing fluidized sand/silt and controlling the subsurface architecture of preserved liquefaction features. Surface liquefaction morphologies (i.e. sand blows and linear sand blow arrays) display alignment with existing utility lines and utility excavations (and perforated pipes) provided conduits for liquefaction ejecta during the CES. No evidence of pre-CES liquefaction was identified within the anthropogenic fill layers or underlying native sediment. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal within the youngest native sediment suggests liquefaction has not occurred at the study site for at least the past 750-800 years. The importance of systematically examining the impact of buried infrastructure on channelizing and influencing surface and subsurface liquefaction morphologies is demonstrated.
This thesis highlights the importance of using a multi-technique approach for understanding prehistoric and contemporary earthquake phenomena and emphasizes the critical role that humans play in shaping the geologic record and Earth’s surface processes.