Collaboratively understand, model and improve the critical cultural and social factors determining societal resilience to earthquakes in Aotearoa New Zealand, including human responses to earthquakes, temporal and spatial variation of risk, and building an earthquake-resilient society.

Research Summary

New Zealand’s experience of major earthquakes in the past decade has created unique research opportunities within a ‘living laboratory’ setting toward a deep understanding of human interpretations of, and responses to, earthquakes - vital for earthquake risk reduction strategies. Acceptable risk in the context of building safety and other resilience-building initiatives requires interactions between natural (physical and engineering) and human (behavioural) factors. Recently NZ has developed a number of national initiatives and activities designed to build collective resilience to future earthquakes across regional to national scales (‘East Coast LAB’, ‘Wellington: It’s our Fault’ and ‘AF8’). These programmes have anecdotally led to tangible improvements in preparedness and response capability. However, measurement and evaluation of their success has had limited attention to date, hindering the ability to further iterate their execution for greater resilience gains. 

This disciplinary theme comprises three strands that will investigate human behaviour immediately prior to, during, and immediately after earthquake shaking; the linkages between risk interpretations and actions; and the role of national and regional hazard initiatives in NZ in the production of tools for resilience, including response plans and frameworks, and increased awareness through community engagement and communication.

Key research questions include

    (i) How do people respond to earthquake shaking and earthquake warnings?
    (ii) Do responses vary across different temporal, spatial, social and cultural contexts?
    (iii) How can we evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of earthquake resilience-building programmes?

This programme will contribute to existing research collaborations both nationally and internationally into the future.

Research Outline

Theme 1: Human responses to earthquakes

Until recently there has been limited understanding of the relationship between behavior during earthquake shaking and risk of injury (Wood, 2018; Lambie et al. 2017). Comprehending human behavior during shaking is important, however, because with a better understanding of the actions that put people at risk, and the contexts within which these actions occur, we can contemplate how to enhance safety (including via engineering solutions, or the promotion of life safety actions such as Drop, Cover and Hold).   This theme aims to build on current knowledge to investigate human behaviour immediately prior to, during, and immediately after earthquake shaking.

Research on human behavior during earthquakes has often relied on simulations for hypothetical earthquake events, or has been based on post-event, reflective interviews and questionnaire studies (Prati et al., 2013). Simulations are based on a best-guess of what people might do in an event, which may not reflect actual behaviour.  Post-event studies have the benefit of observing actual actions, but can be limited by the quality of the participant's memory. Within these contexts, recent research has aimed to determine if behavior during shaking influences a person’s risk of injury or death, and if recommended protective behaviours are beneficial (Johnston et al. 2014). QuakeCoRE Flagship 5  researchers have published on

  1. Causes of injury and behavior from a comprehensive earthquake casualty database (Johnston et al., 2014);
  2. Behavior during shaking in earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand (Jon et al., 2015);
  3. Observations of earthquake behavior captured from CCTV footage (Lambie et al., 2017);
  4. Behavior during early warnings for earthquake shaking in Japan and New Zealand (Nakayachi et et al., 2019) and
  5. Behaviour during and after earthquake drills (Becker et al., 2017; Vinnell et al., 2020). 

Findings from  the aforementioned projects have identified two main influences on injuries during earthquake shaking:

  1. location before and during the earthquake, and
  2. who an individual is with at the time of the earthquake (e.g. children) (Prati et al., 2013; Najafi et al., 2009; Ardagh et al., 2016).

Other influences include: age, gender, previous earthquake experience, and earthquake attributes, including the intensity and duration of earthquake shaking. These projects have proved to be important foundational studies which have identified key influences on behavioural response, but only scratch the surface of our understanding. 

Additionally, research on earthquake drills and warnings has revealed the benefit of education for increasing the likelihood that the correct behavioural actions are taken during or before earthquake shaking (e.g. safety, physical and psychological preparedness), but also highlights the challenges in getting significant proportions of the population to take effective action (Vinnell et al., 2020; Nakayachi et al., 2019).  Further research is needed to understand the links between effective education and appropriate behavioural response. 

In this theme we aim to contribute to theoretical knowledge on behavioural influences both in an earthquake shaking and earthquake early warning context. To do this we will build on previous research (both New Zealand and international examples) that have highlighted drivers of behaviour during earthquake shaking, and will investigate gaps in our understanding of these key influences to bring together a comprehensive behavioural model. 

Key research questions include:

    1.1 How do people respond to a) earthquake shaking and b) earthquake warnings?  

    1.2 Do responses vary across different temporal, spatial, social and cultural contexts? 

    1.3 Why do people respond in the ways they do?
          (What are the key factors that influence appropriate behavioural responses, and how do these factors interact?)

    1.4 How can we ensure people remain safe during earthquake shaking?
          (e.g. through undertaking appropriate actions learned during exercises and education; through engineering solutions?).


Theme 2: Temporal and spatial variation of earthquake risk

Understanding how people interpret earthquake risks and respond to those risks is vital for developing earthquake risk reduction strategies, including for building safety. People’s interpretation of risks may extend to deciding whether they believe a risk is acceptable or not, and may influence whether they are motivated enough to prepare or undertake mitigation actions for earthquakes. Acceptable risk in the context of building safety always involves interactions between natural (physical and engineering) and human (behavioural) factors. This theme aims to investigate the linkages between risk perception and earthquake risk reduction actions for building safety, including exploring the contextual influences that mediate action.

There are many aspects which feed into people’s interpretations of risk.  Decision-making under conditions of uncertainty is inadequately described by traditional models of 'rational choice' (Eiser et al. 2012). Instead, attention needs to be paid to how people's interpretations of risk are shaped by their own experience, personal feelings and values, cultural beliefs and interpersonal and societal dynamics. People’s experiences over time will shape how they interpret and respond to risk, as seen following the 2013 Cook Strait, 2010-11 Canterbury and 2014 Kaikōura earthquakes. Following these damaging events, the risk of earthquakes was perceived as heightened, especially in areas close to the earthquake locations, and people were motivated to undertake various personal and policy-related actions  (Vinnell et al., 2019; Becker et al., 2018; Doyle et al., 2018).  

Likewise additional findings from research on the aforementioned earthquakes (McClure 2011a and b) also showed those located further afield from the quakes felt they were not at risk, and did not take action.  Variations in perceptions of risk by location is supported by other research on earthquake perceptions undertaken in relatively low risk areas that highlight the challenge of people not taking action when they percieve they are not at risk from an earthquake (Johnston et al., 2017a, b, c).  Furthermore, recent research has shown that lack of access to and/or framing of risk information has contributed to public misunderstandings of seismic risk (Vinnell et al. 2018).  

Following the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence and the 2016 Kaikōura earthquakes seismic performance codes are being revised. The National Seismic Hazard Model that underpins the Building Act legislation is also undergoing it’s next iteration (due for release in 2022/23). In order to determine levels of acceptable risk, an integrated understanding of engineering performance, risk language and public perception of risk is required.  This research aims to investigate perceptions of risk across society, and how this relates to application of the codes across different time frames and geographic areas, including places considered relatively high and low risk.   

Key research questions include:

     2.1 How does people’s interpretation of risk contribute to perceptions for building safety?

     2.2 How do people decide whether a risk is acceptable, or not?

     2.3 What contextual factors interact with perception, that mediate effective actions
           (e.g. experience, time, space, personal, social and cultural facets, etc)

    2.4 What are the best ways of framing risks, so that people are motivated to take action? 


Theme 3: Building an earthquake resilient nation

New Zealand’s experience of several major earthquake disasters since 2010 has led to the development of a number of national initiatives and activities designed to build our collective resilience to future earthquakes. These initiatives range across regional to national scales. For example,  East Coast LAB (Life at the Boundary) built on the previous efforts of Wellington, It’s our Fault and the Auckland DEVORA (Determining Volcanic Risk in Auckland) programmes to develop a regional focus on earthquake and tsunami hazards for the East Coast of the North Island. AF8 [Alpine Fault magnitude 8] initially focussed on producing a collective response plan for a future great Alpine Fault earthquake, as well as engaging the community to build resilience through engagement and science education. Other initiatives have also worked to build planning, preparedness and response capacity. The national ShakeOut earthquake exercise became an annual earthquake exercise in 2018, and is led by MCDEM. Additionally, the use of hazard scenarios are being used to inform the response planning process (e.g. AF8 and EC LAB) with more currently under development (e.g. Taranaki volcano). 

The scope and intent of these programmes vary, but together they aim to operate across the traditional silos of research, policy and practice to:

  • generate evidence-informed policy and practice,
  • improve communication networks and trust across key agencies,
  • raise risk literacy about particular hazards and risks, and
  • develop individual and collective resilience through science communication and engagement.

Their efforts have produced new tools for resilience, including response plans and frameworks, and increased awareness through community engagement (illustrated by strong media engagement and social media metrics). However, the uptake and impact of these tools and outcomes are challenging to measure and evaluate. Scenario planning, for example, is an established academic field of investigation, but little research has been conducted to evaluate the success of these programmes in the applied earthquake field.

This workstream will address this gap by developing a programme to evaluate the impact and uptake of recent hazard-focussed resilience-building initiatives,  with a view to developing best practice tools to inform future resilience-building efforts. Research will draw on the risk communication and design, disaster risk reduction, evaluation and community resilience literatures to inform the research workplan. Recent research has focussed largely on evaluating the success of education programmes in schools (Johnson et al., 2014; 2016), museums (MacDonald et al., 2017) and informal education within communities (Feng et al., 2018). These approaches will be assessed for their applicability to community, regional and agency-focussed initiatives described above. 

Four initial activities will focus on
    1) AF8-EC Lab programme evaluation;
    2) the Seismometers in Schools programme;
    3) the South Auckland Pasifika podcast project and the
    4) CEISMIC – Earthquake Digital Archives utilisation project.

Our People

Programme Leaders: David Johnston, Caroline Orchiston 

Researchers: Siautu Alefaio, Denise Blake, Emily Campbell, Mary Anne Clive, Nicholas Cradock-Henry. Tracy Hatton, Nicolas Horspool, Finnigan Illsley-Kemp, Rebecca Lilley, Sanna Malinen, John McClure, Paul Millar, Raj Prasanna, Carol Stewart, Marion Tan, Lauren Vinnell