Dr Aisling O’Kane takes earthquake and tsunami expertise international

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02 March 2024

AislingOKane KaikouraPenninsula

Ensuring that we don’t leave natural hazards to chance is Dr Aisling O’Kane who is leading important global work researching earthquake and tsunami hazards.

Earth's outermost layer, the crust, is made up of massive slabs of solid rock, ranging from hundreds to thousands of kilometres across. These plates are constantly moving in different directions, at slightly different speeds, continuously reshaping Earth's landscapes. It's at the boundaries where the plates meet that most earthquakes occur.

Ensuring that we don’t leave those natural hazards to chance is Dr Aisling O’Kane, a Resilience to Natures Challenges’ (RNC) postdoctoral scientist at GNS Science and the University of Canterbury. Aisling leads important global work researching earthquake and tsunami hazard for the RNC programme, and works closely with her GNS colleagues to contribute to the advancement of computational tools for the Rapid Characterisation of Earthquakes & Tsunami (RCET) programme. As well as this, she volunteers her time for international response missions following devastating earthquake and tsunami events, and is a geoscience consultant for Geoscience for the Future  a not-for-profit initiative which aims to communicate the links between geoscience and a more sustainable future.

Aisling hails from the north coast of Ireland, just a stone’s throw from the world-famous Giant’s Causeway where her love of the earth and the landscape around us was ignited. Her academic studies started in Geology and Physical Geography at the University of Southampton before a stint as an engineering geologist gave her first-hand experience in what it takes to build safe structures. This was followed by a PhD scholarship at the University of Cambridge researching earthquakes and the hazard they pose along the margins of major mountain ranges such as the Himalayas.

Earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand – On average, we locate over 20,000 earthquakes a year in and around Aotearoa New Zealand. So why do we get so many earthquakes? Discover the cause, and what is happening beneath our feet. transcript

Earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand – On average, we locate over 20,000 earthquakes a year in and around Aotearoa New Zealand. So why do we get so many earthquakes? Discover the cause, and what is happening beneath our feet.

In January 2023, Aisling took up an RNC postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Canterbury and GNS Science to research next generation approaches to accelerate Aotearoa New Zealand’s natural hazard resilience to tsunamis. Aisling has been developing a probabilistic tsunami hazard model for New Zealand which provides estimates of potential wave amplitudes (height) along coastlines for earthquake-generated tsunamis from twenty subduction zones in the circum-Pacific ring of fire. In December last year Aisling presented this work at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco. Click to read more on the associated conference paper here.(external link)

A highlight of Aisling’s recent work is the hot-off-the-press publication of the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT)(external link), detailing the response mission carried out following the devastating Mw 7.8 and Mw 7.5 earthquakes which struck southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria on 6 February 2023. EEFIT is a joint venture between industry and universities, conducting field investigations following major earthquakes.

We report our findings directly to the public, community stakeholders, and government representatives which ensures high impact. The report we produce is internationally peer-reviewed giving it credibility and can be something decision-makers are held accountable to.

Dr Aisling O’Kane Resilience to Nature's Challenges Postdoctoral Scientist GNS Science
Building damage after February 2023 Kahramanmara earthquakes
The EEFIT team noted a high level of infrastructure damage due to non-compliant buildings [Credit: EEFIT].

Aisling’s recent work with EEFIT comes from a desire to see science make a positive impact on society. Following the international call for EEFIT team members after the February 2023 Kahramanmaraş earthquakes, Aisling, alongside 29 other people from academia and industry from eight countries, was selected as the response mission crew. Aisling was a key member of the seismotectonic team and provided a geological background and tectonic history of the area affected by the earthquakes. Aisling took the lead on providing a seismological interpretation of the events that made up the Kahramanmaraş earthquake sequence, in context with the regional and local seismic history. Being a tsunami scientist, she also explored the effects of the coastal inundation flooding and evidence of liquefaction (where soil behaves more like a liquid than a solid) recorded in local harbours.

Split into a field team and a remote team, they followed a set of team objectives that ensure their mission complemented other response teams in the region. The remote team conducted disaster reconnaissance work and drew conclusions about the geological surface ruptures, performance of buildings and emergency response efforts. The field team visited the affected regions in Türkiye gathering preliminary findings on the building architecture and geo-environmental effects following the earthquake sequence, and interviews with decision-makers and residents were conducted to record information about the disaster and document experiences.

There is a lot to learn from the Kahramanmaraş earthquakes and it’s been hugely rewarding to apply my knowledge to support the people of Türkiye and Syria as they recover from this devastating event.

Dr Aisling O'Kane Resilience to Nature's Challenges Postdoctoral Scientist GNS Science
EEFIT map showing historical seismicity
Map showing the historical seismicity across Türkiye and Syria with past earthquakes as grey and red circles. The devastating 2023 February earthquakes are in blue. Earthquake data is sourced from the AFAD 1900-2023 earthquake catalogue.

For every EEFIT mission, the team provide an international webinar of the findings and later provide a comprehensive report that outlines the impacts of the event and suggestions to reduce vulnerabilities. Aisling presented the preliminary seismotectonic findings of the Kahramanmaraş mission alongside her colleagues in March 2023. The recommendations following the 2023 mission on how to make areas more seismic resilient will now be tracked to support recovery efforts and improve resilience.

Back in New Zealand, Aisling was able to apply the learnings from the mission to our ‘shaky isles’. The Kahramanmaraş earthquakes was a reminder to seismologists that although we know a lot about earthquakes, their behaviour is still fundamentally unpredictable and many did not expect two large magnitude earthquakes occurring just hours apart. Similarly, engineers were surprised by the high vertical ground motion due to soft soil conditions that weren’t reflected in local building codes. The level of infrastructure damage due to non-compliant buildings is a lesson to all countries in seismically active areas. 

Aisling noted the EEFIT mission, like many international research groups, has sparked additional studies and expects many publications to follow, along with a likely return mission in the coming years to monitor response efforts and enable communities to become more resilient.

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