Push for a united scientific quakes front

Last updated 05:00 17/09/2012
Kelvin Berryman
GNS Science's Kelvin Berryman.

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Christchurch earthquake

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Scientists were touchy, even defensive, about communicating the science behind Canterbury's earthquakes, documents show.

Papers given to The Press under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal discussions between scientists and the Government over scientific material. They also show disagreements.

The response from the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) contains emails, draft press releases, reports and meeting minutes but also a lot of withheld information.

An email to a government official from natural hazards platform manager and GNS Science principal scientist Kelvin Berryman the morning after the deadly magnitude-6.3 February 22, 2011, quake showed a push to ensure scientists presented a united front.

"We regard the Lyttelton event as a late and large aftershock of the Sept 4 Darfield earthquake. I will make sure the researchers use this terminology going forward."

The same day, Berryman addressed the parliamentary education and select committee.

Minutes of the meeting said: "Scientists from the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) were hoping that time period when a large aftershock in the vicinity of a magnitude 6 . . . had passed. Sadly, they were mistaken, the committee heard."

In the minutes next to that, a comment was added by "GNS" saying: "I don't think ‘mistaken' is the best choice of words - ‘sadly, CHCH has not been so fortunate' might be better-balanced words."

On March 15, Berryman emailed two government officials anxious about Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) input to a Science Media Centre press conference the next day.

"Attached are comments I have made on the so-called RSNZ position paper.

"I have concerns that this is available at the press release (sic) - it means Q&A will rapidly become very technical and specific - not the strength of talking heads except for Terry Webb [of GNS Science].

"In the attached you will also see that I have quite a few issues with several of the answers.

"Time is getting short but if the RSNZ are not willing to modify this list then I will insist the [natural hazards] platform association is deleted. Don't want to do this, but . . ."

A question in the Royal Society paper - "why wasn't some warning given about the possibility of a big and damaging aftershock under the city?" - drew the ire of Berryman and others in comments in the paper's margin.

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"JW6" said: "Surely the best answer here is that warnings were given about aftershocks?

"A quick flick through GNS and CDEM [Civil Defence-Emergency Management] media releases fails to find such a warning.

"So either we should show examples that warnings did take place, or admit that there should have been more warning."

Below that, the comment labelled "GNS" - presumably Berryman - said: "Who is this comment from? All of the people of CHCH know I was saying this in presentations, to the media and at meetings, eg recovery group meeting at Commodore Hotel for 100 participants on October 5."

Commenting on the question, "have new faults appeared under Christchurch after these earthquakes?", "GNS" - again presumably Berryman - said: "This doesn't make any sense. Have new faults appeared where?

"If all earthquakes occur on faults, then by definition there are a whole bunch of faults under or near CHCH.

"Is this really what we want to say?"

On October 13, Berryman emailed a warning to scientists and others about the royal commission hearings due to start in Christchurch.

The email was a "heads up" the enhanced building code seismic factors - the Z factor - would "be in the limelight".

- The Press


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