Life on the Fault Lines


Marlborough's East Coast earthquakes

Marlborough’s East Coast is cross hatched with fault lines so the large earthquakes of 2013 and 2016 should not have been surprising, although it is thought the 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake ruptured a record 21 faults.1 The region sits on a set of major faults:  the Wairau, Awatere, Clarence and Hope faults; and has recorded a number of significant quakes over time.2

Marlboroughs fault system

Marlborough Fault system by Mikenorton - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


The first European settlers in the Awatere region had just started to make themselves at home when an estimated magnitude 7.1 earthquake woke them at 1.40am on Monday 16 October, 1848. Thomas Arnold was visiting Frederick Weld at Flaxbourne  and reported being woken up as his bed shook violently from side to side.  “….every plank in the house creaked and rattled, the bottles and glasses in the next room kept up a sort of infernal dance…..When the shock was past, there came a few spasmodic heavings like long-drawn breaths, and then all was still,” he wrote to his mother in England.3

Faults Gouland

Henry Godfrey Gouland, early settler and magistrate. N. Brayshaw. Marlborough Museum and Archives. From his diary: October 16, 1848 - Awoke at 2.30a.m. by the great earthquake. House thrown off piles.

The earthquake lowered the bed of the Wairau Lagoons by 1.5 metres which increased tidal movement of water and provided better boat access into the Wairau and Opawa Rivers.

There has been some disagreement about whether the quake was a rupture of the Awatere or Wairau Fault,4 although modern scientists favour the Awatere Fault.5 However we do know that the initial 7.1 shake was felt throughout the Awatere and Wairau Valleys and was followed by a long sequence of aftershocks.

Con Dillon’s new house and dairy in the Waihopai Valley were levelled to the ground and Te Rauparaha, who was sleeping at the Wairau Pa (or near Picton), was thrown from bed and sprained his hip. The whalers of Cloudy Bay were so alarmed, they took their women and children across Cook Strait to Wellington, which was also badly affected by the quake.6 Nelson’s resident magistrate, Major Mathew Richmond, noted in November 1848, that ‘a crack quite straight crossed the country for miles'; in some places he had difficulty crossing it with his horse; in another, the crack passed through an old warre [whare] dividing it in two pieces standing four feet apart.7


But worse was to come. At 9.17 pm on 23 January, 1855, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake triggered by the Wairarapa Fault struck.8 Early Kekerengu  pioneer, Frederick Trolove described shocks continuing through the night until ‘a most awful shock the imagination could conceive forced us once more out of the house in the greatest confusion and alarm’.9

Faults Trolove

Kekerengu pioneer, Frederick Trolove and his sons Peter and Willie. Frederick described the 1855 earthquake in which he lost his first home. Marlborough Museum & Archives

Trolove recorded that 16 houses, all built that summer at Flaxbourne, were either flattened or beyond repair.10 From the woolshed, he watched the house he had built tottering with every shock. Next morning, he woke to see his ‘neat New Zealand cottage with a garden full of veges ruined beyond repair.”11  It is interesting to note that Trolove descendents still live in the same area and were impacted by the November 2016 earthquake.12

Aftershocks continued throughout February, March and April. Alexander Mowat and his family fled their house at Altimarloch in the Awatere Valley. Their house was so badly damaged, that they had to live in a tent while it was repaired.  In the lower Wairau Valley, the Redwood family were living in the woolshed.13 The January quake saw the seaward end of the Wairau Valley subside by more than a metre.14 William Budge and other settlers on flat land in the lower Wairau Valley had to move to higher ground to avoid being flooded.15


Seddon lies south of the Awatere Fault and is built on silts and coarse gravels overlaying mudstone.16 On 23 April, 1966, a magnitude 6.1 earthquake centred 35 kilometres from Seddon in the Cook Strait caused damage in the township and minor damage in Blenheim and Wellington.

Faults Bargh

John Bargh surveys the chaos in his Seddon grocery store after the 6.1 earthquake centred in Cook Strait, 35 kilometres from Seddon on 23 April, 1966. Fairfax NZ.

Practically every chimney in Seddon came down and there was considerable household damage.  At the Cape Campbell lighthouse, a guide roller to the 2.5 ton prism was sheared off, hit the prism and bounced through a window. By the end of April, 41 shocks in the Seddon sequence had been recorded.17


The Seddon/Flaxbourne area was once again a centre of seismic activity in 2013.  A quake struck on 21 July,  centred about 20km east of Seddon, measuring magnitude 6.5 at a depth of 17kms. It caused minor damage in the region, with more significant impact in Wellington, but was followed by a series of aftershocks.  On 16 August a second quake hit. This is now known as the Lake Grassmere earthquake, and measured 6.6, with an epicentre 10km south east of Seddon.18

Faults Ugbrooke

The chimney fell through the ceiling of the Heritage 2 listed Ugbrooke Homestead in the Awatere Valley as a result of the 2013 Lake Grassmere earthquake. Owner Alex Stowasser sits amidst the rubble. The property continues to operate as boutique accommodation. Fairfax NZ

State Highway 1 between Riverlands and north of Kekerengu was closed and businesses and houses in the region were badly damaged.19  Salt production at Lake Grassmere's saltworks was stopped for four days as they had no water or electricity due to the earthquake.20

The Marlborough District Council instigated its emergency management plan when there were fears that the Haldon dam in the headwaters of Starborough Creek above Seddon might be breached.21


On November 14, 2016 residents in Kaikoura, Marlborough and Wellington were jolted awake just after midnight by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which GNS scientists say caused a record 21 faults to rupture.22 Thousands of aftershocks were recorded after the initial twin earthquakes which appeared to start just northeast of Culverden on the Kekerengu Fault, before rupturing the newly discovered Waipapa Bay Fault, the Hundalee Fault, and ending its massive vibration at the western end of the 230km-long Hope Fault, which connects to the South Island's main Alpine Fault.23

Faults north canterbury

The 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake shook Marlborough, Wellington and Canterbury. Photographed in North Canterbury by University of Canterbury geologist Dr Kate Pedley. Fairfax/ Pedley.

Data, including satellite radar imagery, shows that parts of the South Island moved more than five metres closer to the North Island, and that some parts were raised by up to eight metres. GNS scientist Ian Hamling said the land from Kaikoura to Cape Campbell moved north-west by up to six metres.24

There was extensive damage up and down the East Coast.   Homes and businesses were damaged and destroyed, there were fissures and slips on farms and hillsides, roads cracked and twisted and train tracks buckled and broke.25

Faults railway

Railway line flung across State Highway 1 north of Kaikoura by the 7.8 earthquake 2016. Fairfax NZ

About 110 km of  coastline from Oaro to Lake Grassmere was uplifted. Geonet described the uplift as ‘a phenomenal tectonic event…  causing numerous problems for local residents, fishermen, boat operators and coastal users’.26

The magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused nine major slips north of Kaikoura which was cut off for days until the inland Kaikoura Highway and, eventually SH1 south of the town, were reopened.  It was thought it would take at least a year to clear the highway to the north of the town, with the alternative route between Picton and Christchurch via the Wairau Valley and Lewis Pass seeing a large increase in traffic volume.27 The road partially reopened in December 2017.27

Faults Takahanga Marae

Kaikoura’s Takahanga Marae fed and sheltered hundreds of people stranded by the 7.8 earthquake 2016. Fairfax NZ.

Crayfish was on the menu at the Takahanga marae, which fed 900 people on the first night and hosted tourists and locals alike. Other visitors slept in churches or were welcomed into local homes   Defence Force helicopters flew people out of the town.28  Navy vessels, the HMNZS Wellington and the HMNZS Canterbury arrived the next day to bring in supplies and rescue stranded people.29

To the north, Ward was also badly affected, with farms, homes and a crayfish factory badly damaged.30 Three weeks before the Kaikoura earthquake, a premier of the movie Light between the Oceans, which was filmed around Cape Campbell, was held to kick off a fund raising campaign for the Flaxbourne Heritage Centre.  It will feature exhibits about earlier earthquakes, the large Flaxbourne pastoral station, the Cape Campbell lighthouse and the multi-million dollar fishing industry based in the area.  The building where many historical items were stored was badly damaged and has been red-stickered. A group of locals31 still hopes to achieve their dream and build a centre which will tell the stories of this historic region (planned for 2021).32

2017. Updated December 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Daly, M (2017, March 15) Kaikoura earthquake ruptured 21 faults - that's possibly a world record. Retrieved from Stuff:
  2. Grapes, R. (2000) Magnitude Eight Plus. New Zealand’s Biggest Earthquakes. Wellington: Victoria University Press, p166
  3. Eiby, G.A. (1980). The Marlborough Earthquakes of 1848. Wellington: Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. 1980, p 16
  4. Downes, G.L. (1995) Atlas of Isoseismal Maps of New Zealand Earthquakes. , Lower Hutt, NZ: Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences Ltd., p24
  5. Grapes, R., Little, T. & Downes, G. (1998) Rupturing of the Awatere Fault during the 1848 October 16 Marlborough earthquake, New Zealand: Historical and present day evidence. New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics 41(8)
  6. Eiby, p16-17
  7. The Murchison earthquake on the Prow
  8. Rogers, A. (2013) The shaky isles : New Zealand earthquakes. Wellington, New Zealand : Grantham House, p 38.
  9. Grapes, p 38
  10. McIntosh, A.D. (1977) Marlborough: A Provincial History. Christchurch, N.Z.: Capper Press,  p 168
  11. Grapes, p 85 - 86
  12. Personal information. Sally Peter, Ward farmer. 17/3/2017
  13. Grapes, p89
  14. Rogers, p 38
  15. Grapes, p104
  16. Downes (no page numbers) 
  17. Adams, R. D. (1970) Seddon earthquake, New Zealand, April 1966.  Bulletin 199. DSIR. Wellington, N.Z. : Government Print.  p5-20
  18. Seddon earthquakes of 2013 on the Prow
  19. Severe earthquake near Seddon (2013, 16 August) Marlborough Express on Stuff:
  20. Fear and triumph (2013, 21 August) Marlborough Express on Stuff:
  21. Wardle, P. (2013, 21 August) Work intensifies to avoid dam breach. Marlborough Express on Stuff:
  22. Daly
  23. Wright, T. (2016, November 11) Anatomy of the Kaikoura quakes. Newshub:
  24. McSweeny, J (2017, March 24) Kaikoura Quake moved South island 5 metres. RNZ news
  25. State Highway 1 repairs to cost up to 2 billion (2016, December 15) Stuff:
  26. Clark, K (2017, January) Coastal uplift along the North Canterbury-Marlborough coast – results from the coastal survey team. GeoNet blog:
  27. Kaikoura earthquake response. Retrieved 27 April 2017 from NZTA:
  28. Stranded Kaikoura tourists overwhelmed by generosity as helicopters fly evacuees out (2016, November 16) Stuff National:
  29. First sighting: Both NZ Navy ships arrive in Kaikoura to rescue stranded tourists (2016, November 16). TVNZ:
  30. Watson, M (2016, November 14)  Quake in Ward, Marlborough, worse than three years ago, residents say. Stuff National:
  31. For more information contact Sally Peter:
  32. Personal communication Sally Peter, Ward farmer. 17/3/17

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  • Dear Joy, I like your article very much but would you mind correcting one point? Research on the 1848 Marlborough quake is fairly conclusive that it was the Awatere Fault that ruptured. While you reference the 1995 isoseismal maps, these were revised in 2003 following the 1998 study by Grapes, Little and Downes titled Rupturing of the Awatere Fault during the 1848 October 16 Marlborough earthquake, New Zealand: Historical and present day evidence. The abstract and paper can be found here... Regards, Mark Jeffries

    Posted by Mark Jeffries, 08/05/2017 8:53am (7 years ago)

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August 2013 Earthquake

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Historic earthquakes

August 2013 earthquake

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