14 Dec 2023

Underwater slips and slides

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 14 December 2023
An overview of the underwater landscape showing canyons extending like veins from a rugged plateau and pockmarks in the smooth seafloor surface.

Seabed map of the continental slope off the coast of the Taranaki and Waikato regions. Submarine canyons, cutting downslope are observed along with “pockmarks” – small circular pits in the seafloor thought to be formed by fluid escaping from the seabed. Photo: GNS Science

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Underwater landslides: out of sight, but not out of mind 

One million years ago something triggered an underwater landslide in the Tasman Sea off the coast of Taranaki. A massive amount of sediment, 32 times the volume of Mount Ruapehu, thundered down a slope.  

But if the land slides underwater and there’s nobody there to see it, does it have an impact?  

Early modelling suggests yes – it’s likely to have caused a large tsunami that would have hit the west coast of Aotearoa.  

So today, with our populated coastlines and our underwater communication cables, what’s the likelihood of it happening again?  

That’s what GNS senior marine geohazard researcher Dr Suzanne Bull is keen to answer.  

A rainbow false-colour model of the seafloor showing canyons, scarps and pockmarks. The canyons look like branching veins.

Perspective 3D view of part of the seafloor offshore Taranaki-Waikato Regions. Water depth ranges from around 200 to 900 m. Submarine canyons are observed, cutting downslope, along with “pockmarks” – small circular pits in the seafloor thought to be formed by fluid escaping from the seabed, and seabed scarps, indicating slope failures on the modern seafloor. Photo: GNS Science

Figuring out the where and why 

Just like on land, any sloped area under the sea has the potential to slide – but underwater landslides tend to be far more massive.  

Understanding what triggers them is tricky, says Suzanne, because you can’t easily survey after an event.  

For example, in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle more than 140,000 landslides have been documented from on-the-ground reports and aerial imagery, but doing a similar assessment underwater is far more expensive and time consuming.  

Earthquakes could be another potential trigger. One natural disaster that woke scientists up to the potential hazard of such landslides was when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake off Papua New Guinea in 1998 resulted in an unexpected tsunami. Investigations indicated that it was caused not by the earthquake itself, but by a large underwater landslide.   

Listen to the episode to hear Suzanne explain how she and her colleagues have been investigating a group of large landslides in the Tasman Sea in the hopes of learning more about the potential risks to Aotearoa.   

Three women look at a map laid out on a table in a room inside a ship. The middle woman is pointing at something. Two people are engaged in other tasks in the background.

Dr Suzanne Bull with colleagues Sally and Jess aboard the RV Tangaroa in 2022. Photo: GNS Science

Homing in on the zone 

Of course, Aoteaoroa is also at risk from tsunamis generated in the more ‘classic’ way: large earthquakes occurring underwater.  

Off the North Island’s East Coast, the Pacific Plate dives under the Australian Plate in an area known as the Hikurangi subduction zone.  

Such subduction zones have been responsible for extremely large earthquakes around the Pacific Ring of Fire, says GNS scientist Dr Stuart Henrys, so he and others are keen to understand the Hikurangi area in as much detail as possible.  

A group of nine people wearing hard hats and hi-vis vests gather next to large yellow cylindrical devices in metal frames on the deck of a ship.

Part of the team investigating slow-slip earthquakes in the Hikurangi subduction zone. Stuart Henrys is at the back right. Photo: GNS Science

GPS sensors revealed that in part of this zone, to the east of Gisborne, slow-slip earthquakes are occurring regularly – every two years or so. In slow-slip earthquakes, the movement is similar to a traditional earthquake, except it takes weeks to occur rather than seconds. The slip is so slow that no damaging shaking occurs.  

Internationally there’s been a lot of scientific interest in slow-slip earthquakes, in part because they occurred in advance of the extremely destructive 9.1 magnitude Tohoku earthquake in Japan in 2011.  

The slow-slip earthquakes observed off Gisborne are the shallowest in the world, so researchers from New Zealand, the US, the UK and Japan pooled resources to create a 3D map of part of this region in incredible detail.  

Having crunched the data for many years, Stuart tells Claire Concannon about the surprising findings he and his colleagues have uncovered.  

Approximately 50 large yellow devices, roughly spherical, with bright blue attachments, inside red square metal frames lined up.

Sensors for the 3D scan of the Hikurangi subduction zone. Photo: GNS Science

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