The only difference between the Friends of Te Papa members and the school students arriving in Te Papa’s foyer was their age. Separated by three decades or more, the excited chatter and energy levels in anticipation of the experience in store for them was the same; it just took the Friends group a little longer to hop on and off their bus!

A quick roll call and five minutes later we were off on the Members only tour to Te Puna Mōrearea i te Rū, National Geohazards Monitoring Centre (NGMC) at Te Pū Ao, GNS Science, headquarters in Avalon.

We were welcomed by Public Information Management (PIM) Duty Officer, Eleanor Deacon, before Geohazards Analyst (GHA) Mathew Crighton and Geohazards Shift Leader (GSL) Ashleigh Fromont gave us an insight into what goes on at the NGMC. Turns out, it’s a lot. The Centre, which opened in 2018, provides 24/7 ‘eyes-on’ monitoring of the four geological hazards (earthquake, tsunami, volcano, and landslide) across New Zealand. Using the latest technology, they assess the perils being faced and give timely advice to the various agencies that may need to front foot a response, such as National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in respect of tsunami and Waka Kotahi (NZTA) in respect of landslides.

You may notice there are a number of acronyms used here, and they readily roll off Mathew’s tongue as he describes just some of the equipment used, like DART (Deep Ocean and Recording of Tsunami), and personnel involved such as SDO, VDO and LDO (Seismic, Volcano and Landslide Duty Officers respectively).

Ashleigh explained how the NGMC is able to provide the 24/7 support for the GeoNet, Tsunami, Volcano and Landslide groups. They have five teams of three GHAs and one GSL, working 8.5 hour shifts on a ten-day roster. They keep eyes on more than 700 monitoring stations set up around NZ and on the sea floor.

Business as usual for the NGMC sees the teams carry out a hi-fidelity exercise every Monday, where they practise responses to varying scenarios. And they never know what they are going to face. Sometimes, to keep them on their toes, the Operations Centre Manager (OCM) will set off the fire alarm or pull an electric plug in the middle of an exercise. The purpose of which is to prepare them for any eventuality. It’s very effective. When they were faced with the “Tri-nami” of March 5, 2021 they swung into action following protocols that have been rehearsed and undertaken many times.

The first M7.3 earthquake hit at 2.30am. Followed just a few hours later by another M7.3 and an M8.1 north of New Zealand in the Kermadec region. All three earthquakes generated a tsunami which needed to be assessed. The last two came at the same time, one deep and one shallow, so it was very complex to analyse and difficult to model. We saw how the three events combined to produce the tsunami threat to 36 out of NZ’s 43 coastal zones. In the end, the tsunami experienced at Great Barrier Island was about 40cms and at East Cape about 30-35cms, which is equivalent to a whole column of water moving like a very fast flowing river. It would be hard to maintain your footing.

With our heads full of figures and TLAs, we were split into two groups to tour the nerve centre of the NGMC. It was like stepping into a mini Mission Control. Rows of consoles, keyboards and monitors were ranged in front of a whole bank of screens across the front wall. Some showed montages of images from cameras at active volcanos – they monitor 12 across NZ – and from the sea bed. There are screens showing the jagged lines of multiple seismic recordings from the GeoNet stations. Others noting air and water temperature changes, daily rainfall and wind speeds. There are some receiving information from international stations. They also receive all the ‘felt-it’ reports from the GeoNet app. At the time of our visit, the display showing the number of earthquakes located since the NGMC opened in 2018 stood at 54,859. With that level of activity, it is reassuring to know that there’s always someone keeping watch for the rest of us.

Helen Pinson