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Scientists pool expertise and equipment to obtain deep image of Alpine Fault - 15/01/2016

Scientists and equipment from four countries have converged on the Whataroa Valley in South Westland this week to build an image of the Alpine Fault beneath the 900m-deep borehole that was drilled there in late 2014.

Alpine Fault

Information obtained from the three-week-long project will be used to study the fault’s geometry and structure below the valley, and help in determining where future scientific drill holes could be sited.

The existing drill hole, which was completed in January 2015 as part of the Deep Fault Drilling Project, is 893m deep and is thought to end 200m to 300m short of the actual fault interface, where the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates meet.

For the past year, equipment installed inside the borehole has been measuring temperature and earthquake activity and scientists in many countries have been analysing data and samples collected during the drilling phase of the project.

Now a group of about 25 scientists has returned to the site with specialist equipment in a concerted effort to build a sub-surface picture of the Alpine Fault as it cuts through the valley.

Science team leader and geophysicist, Associate Professor John Townend of Victoria University of Wellington, said the Alpine Fault produces large earthquakes about every 330 years, and last broke in 1717.

“The seismic survey we’re doing this month is part of a much larger project addressing the temperatures, pressures, and stresses in the core of the Alpine Fault as it is being primed for the next big earthquake.

“What we’re interested in is how the Alpine Fault works, and what factors control its cycle of large earthquakes,” Assoc Prof Townend said.

“As time goes by, the Alpine Fault is being loaded by motion between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates. What we’re trying to do is understand the processes that eventually break the camel’s back and cause the fault to slip – and the conditions under which that happens.”

The Whataroa Valley is recognised internationally as a key site for studying earthquake processes, and the Deep Fault Drilling Project involves 120 scientists and technicians from more than a dozen countries.

A key finding from the drilling in 2014 was that the rocks beneath Whataroa Valley are very hot, increasing in temperature by about 140 degrees Celsius for every 1km increase in depth.

This is due to the combined effects of uplift of the Southern Alps and local groundwater flow. Scientists involved in the project are currently working to understand the implications this has for temperature-controlled processes occurring in the earthquake generation zone deep inside the fault.

This special 'vibrating' truck is among the tonnes of equipment that has been brought to Whataroa from Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom to build a two-dimensional underground image of the Alpine Fault.

This special 'vibrating' truck is among the tonnes of equipment that has been brought to Whataroa from Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom to build a two-dimensional underground image of the Alpine Fault.

The plan for this month’s seismic survey is to build a two dimensional seismic image, similar to a medical X-ray or a CAT scan, of the valley sub-surface to a depth of about 1.5km to get a clear picture of the Alpine Fault at depth.

To do this, the scientists will generate artificial seismic waves at known points on the surface and record these using a wide range of sensors.

The equipment being used includes a truck owned and operated by the University of Calgary that sends vibrations into the ground, and a 60m-long seismic profiling tool that will be lowered into the borehole on a special cable to take measurements.

The survey will also make use of the fiber-optic cable installed permanently in the borehole. By measuring how pulses of light emitted by a laser are scattered along the length of the cable, this equipment can be used to record seismic waves.

“Optical systems like this provide amazing new opportunities for making geophysical measurements. We’ve been using the fiber installed in the Whataroa borehole to measure  temperatures underground every couple of months for more than a year. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be attaching different equipment to the top of the fiber so that we can record seismic waves instead.”

In addition, scientists from Canada and Germany have brought several hundred geophones to the site. They will be placed in a grid pattern throughout the valley to record the way the vibrations from the truck are reflected back from different sub-surface rock layers.

The truck – called a vibroseis – was used in 2011 in Canterbury to produce seismic images of geological structures beneath Christchurch after the magnitude 6.3 quake on 22 February 2011. It has been brought back to New Zealand from Canada especially for this project and another geophysical investigation of the Kerepehi Fault in north Waikato.

The 9 tonne vehicle generates seismic waves by vibrating a steel plate on the ground.

An existing seismic image of the valley compiled several years ago reveals geological structures of interest. However, the equipment being used this summer is expected to produce a superior image that should provide new insights on the anatomy of the fault.

“Using an array of seismometers spread out across the valley as well as sensors lowered into the borehole and the fiber optic cable, we can record each vibroseis shot from a large number of different locations, on and below the ground surface,” said GNS Science team member Dr Richard Kellett.

“This will enhance our ability to determine the geometry and position of the Alpine Fault beneath the valley.”

The large amount of data produced during the project will be pooled so that all the participants are able to work collaboratively on different aspects of the subsurface image.

Scientists participating in the project are from Victoria, Auckland, and Otago universities, GNS Science, the universities of Alberta and Calgary in Canada, TU Bergakademie Freiberg in Germany, and from Schlumberger in the United Kingdom.

It is being funded by the Earthquake Commission, Victoria University of Wellington, and the German Science Foundation.

Watch video footage from 3News.