National Portrait: Earth's rumblings a fascination for scientist Dr Ken Gledhill

Drone footage from different sources reveals the extensive damage caused by the devastating 7.8 magnitude North Canterbury earthquake.

If you had to paint a picture of the archetypical scientist, you'd come up with an image of Dr Ken Gledhill: deeply woolly, untamed grizzly white beard, spectacles, fleecy jerkin.

The walls of his office in the GeoNet bunker are littered with large yellow Post-it notes reminding him to do this or that – a mind-boggling sticky patchwork of memos.

Maps of New Zealand hang from the walls, with dark pen circling earthquake hotspots. There are many.

GeoNet boss Ken Gledhill at the offices in Avalon, Wellington.

GeoNet boss Ken Gledhill at the offices in Avalon, Wellington.

He's finally exhaling after dealing with the fallout of New Zealand's massive 7.8 earthquake on November 14. The GeoNet director and his team worked pretty much non-stop from just minutes after the quake for eight days straight. 

Brownlee still dark on GNS Science over comments about tsunami monitoring

National Portrait: Keith Quinn
National Portrait: Lloyd Geering
National Portrait: Roger Walker

* National Portrait: Maryan Street

In between all the monitoring and advising in the messy post-quake business, he managed to raise the hackles of Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, who was 'blindsided' by Gledhill's assertion that New Zealand needs 24/7 staffing to avoid the confusion we had around the tsunami warnings.  

When the 7.8 magnitude quake struck, Gledhill woke up and  thought, ''there goes my week, if not my month, if not my year".

When the 7.8 magnitude quake struck, Gledhill woke up and thought, ''there goes my week, if not my month, if not my year".

The political hoopla that followed – with debate over whether Gledhill should have spoken out and whether Brownlee, who says the Government was never approached with the suggestion, over-reacted – ramped up the pressure.

But the outspoken scientist,  who says he has been talking about the need for 24/7 staffing for four years, remains unapologetic about his blatant campaign.

"I don't think I can actually let it go. In some ways we have a professional responsibility to do the best we possibly can for New Zealand. I am not religious at all but I think I have a moral responsibility too."

The Kaikoura earthquake ruptured a huge stretch of land.

The Kaikoura earthquake ruptured a huge stretch of land.

When the quake struck, Gledhill was blissfully asleep at his Waikanae home with his wife of almost 40 years, Linda Stone.

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"I thought it was the cat jumping on the bed but then it carried on and on for what seemed like forever. 

"I could tell just from the feel of it that this was a big one. I thought; there goes my week, if not my month, if not my year."

Wellington was also affected by the Kaikoura earthquake, with several buildings being closed, and some demolished. ...
Ross Giblin

Wellington was also affected by the Kaikoura earthquake, with several buildings being closed, and some demolished. Statistics House, left and Customhouse building on Harbour Quays are both closed after being damaged in the earthquake.

He feels less a sense of fear in a magnitude 7.8 earthquake than a sort of fascination, he says. It's geophysics in action and any science boffin worth their salt is going to be interested in that.

"This is just amazing when you see how the faults broke. How do you take such a large area and pull it up five metres? It's hard to get your head around the power of the thing.

"We are watching the Earth create itself. That's what's happening. This is why New Zealand exists. 

"We have the uplift, the mountains, the whole nine yards. We live on this quake boundary where the Pacific plate and the Australian plate collide big-time and that's what makes New Zealand what it is and somehow we have to work out how we can live and thrive here. 

"I think mostly we do."

But he knew this was going to be serious. He knew it was going to have a big impact on New Zealand. "I thought back to the Canterbury earthquakes of 2011 and thought, how much more of this can New Zealand take?"

Having a job to do takes away some of the anxiety around an earthquake and its aftershocks, he says.

"Maybe because we have something to do straight away the fear is different. We have operating procedures to follow so we can be almost like robots and get on with it.

"In hindsight, I took off and left my wife at home and didn't really think about her for a long time and I feel really bad about that now."

Linda didn't dilly-dally, however, fleeing to higher ground once the threat of tsunami became known.

Her husband, meanwhile, spent the week working and bunking down in the GeoNet base in the Lower Hutt suburb of Avalon as the earth continued to shake and the heavens opened.

Gledhill was born in Inglewood, Taranaki, as Queen Elizabeth II steamed through on her Empire Tour of 1953.

One of five children, he was raised on a dairy farm and knew very early on that he did not want to be a farmer. Too many early starts.

He was a curious child, a dreamy kid who liked to take things apart and try to put them back together.

He remembers the first significant earthquake he felt in the early 1960s as a 10 year old. 

"I told my mother then that I was going to build something that would record these movements of the Earth," he recalls.

The geophysicist, who has headed GeoNet for 10 years, got pretty close. In fact, many will credit him with helping New Zealanders really connect with the science of earthquakes 

Since the Christchurch quakes GeoNet under his leadership has gone from being a low key monitoring system to a high-profile institution.

"We had been a relatively obscure part of GNS Science and suddenly we are in the hot seat. Everybody wants what we've got."

With 350,000 active users of the GeoNet app, 60,000 Twitter followers and 90,000 Facebook followers, he has seen a massive and swift development of technology that helps Kiwis understand more and therefore prepare better for disasters.

His first job was as a communication technician for the Post Office, where he spent six years.

Because of the technical training he received there, he became interested in mathematics. He went to university and ended up moving into the realm of physics.

After graduating with a masters in physics, he went on to work as a geophysicist at what was the DSIR, working on seismic data and earthquake detection.

He stayed on as the DSIR morphed into the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences and eventually GNS Science. Somehow he managed to fit in a PhD in Geophysics in the early 1990s – he's not quite sure how he pulled that off, raising three daughters and holding down a job at the same time.

When he's not measuring the rumbling Earth beneath us he likes to quaff red wine, preferably Central Otago pinot noir. He has a fondness for a good Bordeaux.

The 63-year-old reads sci-fi and loves the worlds those authors can create – a window into a future thousands of years from now, he suggests.

Back in our world he has more aftershocks to contend with. Our shaky isles are still rumbling, our Earth busy creating itself. Gledhill is in his element. 

 - Stuff


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