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New Zealand Team to Investigate Impact of Climate Change on Earthquake-Induced Natural Disasters

New Zealand researchers will investigate how climate change could increase the risk of damage triggered by earthquakes and landslides, two of the country’s deadliest and most costly natural disasters.

The team from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand said a warming climate and frequent storms will have a profound impact on lives and property.

The study will investigate the impact of climate change on natural disasters such as landslides, cliff collapse and flooding that are triggered by earthquakes.

Researchers report that landslides have caused more deaths in New Zealand than any other natural hazard and result in US$178 million in insurance claims each year.

Timothy Stahl, a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury’s School of Earth and Environment, said global warming and earthquakes can combine to cause significant destruction.

“The more saturated a hill slope is, the more likely it is to fail in a landslide, and if you have earthquakes occurring, shaking those saturated hill slopes then you can much more easily cause earthquake-induced landslides," Stahl said.

He said a good example was what happened in Hokkaido in Japan in 2018.

"You had a typhoon come through saturating hill slopes there, and then a magnitude six-something earthquake the next day, which caused thousands of landslides to fall off the hill slopes, causing all sorts of chaos,” he said.

Both Japan and New Zealand lie on the so-called Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped band of seismically active fault lines around the Pacific Basin.

Stahl said the study aims to help earthquake-prone countries be better prepared and resilient and will include improved guidance for building near active fault lines.

“No matter where you are, if it is tectonically active, then you are going to have this interaction between earthquakes and climate change and it is just really important to have a more accurate picture of what that interaction is going to look like,” Stahl said.

In February, New Zealand was hit by Cyclone Gabrielle, the worst storm so far this century. The earthquake-prone South Pacific nation of about 5 million people is known as the Shaky Isles. About 14,000 earthquakes occur in and around New Zealand each year. Most are too small to be noticed, but between 150 and 200 are powerful enough to be felt.

Last week, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck the country’s South Island.

The epicenter was about 120 kilometers west of Christchurch and was the strongest quake to hit New Zealand this year.

The University of Canterbury natural disasters research should be completed by 2027.