23 March 2017

Earthquake research receives science honour

Brendon Bradley, Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, Bill English, Bill, English

A Canterbury professor who is leading worldwide research into the effects of ground shaking caused by earthquakes has claimed one of New Zealand’s top science prizes.

Professor Brendon Bradley, 30, from the University of Canterbury, has been awarded the 2016 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize. He receives $200,000, with $150,000 of that to be used for further research.

His research, which is already being used to set new building design codes internationally, and places emphasis on more robust designs for buildings and infrastructure of critical importance, such as hospitals, telecommunications headquarters and office blocks occupied by large numbers of workers. Several major rebuilding projects in Christchurch are being influenced by his findings, with an expected trickle-down effect as these new, advanced methods of engineering become the norm.

Brendon’s prize recognises his sophisticated seismic hazard analysis and assessment modelling, and pioneering ground motion simulation to identify and mitigate earthquake impacts. His modelling relies on physics-based data, examining the geological and geophysical properties of rock and soil at specific locations. This differs from traditional ground motion modelling, which is based primarily on observation and generalised information.

“We can’t predict when an earthquake will hit but we can predict how strong the ground shaking will be at certain geographic locations,” says Brendon.

Super computers are helping to revolutionise his research by completing in one day, large-scale calculations and video animations that could take up to five years on a laptop.

The young civil engineer had limited, first-hand experienced of earthquakes but within two years of completing his PhD, he experienced both Canterbury earthquakes and was in Tokyo during the magnitude 9 Tohoku Japan earthquake.

His seismic analysis is enabling a balance between resilience and economics.

“It’s not economic to design most infrastructure for the worst earthquake we can ever imagine because all buildings would look like bomb shelters,” says Brendon.

“Some buildings and infrastructure are too important to fail so we have to make sure we mitigate the consequences of those suffering substantial earthquake damage and make them more resilient. In other cases, perhaps we can afford to have some damage without excessive flow-on consequences.”

His modelling also provides more accurate information of areas most susceptible to strong ground shaking.

“It’s about investing more money where the risk is greater, investing less where the risk is lower and taking into account the function of the building.”

Brendon believes New Zealanders should focus on the social and economic disruption of earthquakes more than the risk of human casualties, which is low compared to other risks we face every day. He says we can take some comfort from knowing that the high-quality earthquake research he and his team are doing is among the best in the world.

Some of the research on engineering solutions to improve earthquake resilience is having spinoff benefits for other infrastructure operating in day-to-day conditions, such as more robust electricity networks with fewer power outages and stronger stopbanks to withstand floods.

The prize-winning researcher says New Zealand is fortunate to have a high level of insurance cover to cope with recent earthquakes but could become vulnerable if it follows the example of California and Japan where insurance cover has been significantly reduced.

“We could be exposed if there is too much reliance on insurance instead of investing in more seismic-resilient infrastructure.”

Being prepared is also essential, he says. Those living in urbanised areas such as Auckland and Wellington, where people tend to shop daily and have minimal supplies of stored food, may struggle to support themselves immediately after a serious earthquake.

Brendon has received numerous national and international accolades for his seismic hazard analysis and his nomination for the Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist was judged only weeks before last year’s Kaikoura earthquake. That earthquake continues to highlight the important role of earthquake scientists and engineers in New Zealand.

The international researcher is currently on sabbatical at Stanford University in California, where he is collaborating with others in writing a text book that outlines the level of resilience required for buildings to withstand various earthquake magnitudes.

The 2016 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were presented to winners on March 21, at Parliament Building, Wellington.

To find out more about the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes visit: