Remembering the M7.8 Buller/Murchison Earthquake, 90 years on

Published: Mon Jun 17 2019 1:50 PM

On Monday 17 June, 1929 a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Murchison at 10:17AM. The earthquake was felt all over New Zealand and its massive rumbling was heard as far away as New Plymouth.

Seventeen people lost their lives, many in the extensive landslides triggered over thousands of square kilometres.

Dr Kelvin Berryman has been with GNS Science since the 1970s (back when we were the New Zealand Geological Survey!) and is now the Theme Leader for Natural Hazards and Risks. His grandfather lived in Murchison at the time of the earthquake – and now Kelvin shares his story.

Kelvin Berryman during field work in the 1929 Buller earthquake area in 1998.  GNS Science

Kelvin Berryman during field work in the 1929 Buller earthquake area in 1998. GNS Science

My grandfather was one of the first responders to the earthquake. He had a job working for the Post and Telegraph Department in those days. He was called upon to try and open up the communications lines and there’s photos of him carrying big sacks of mail from Murchison down the Buller Gorge down over the slips, but he was also helping everybody in the emergency.

Maintaining communications, starting down the gorge (Kelvin’s Grandfather centre). Berryman family.

Maintaining communications, starting down the gorge (Kelvin’s Grandfather centre). Berryman family.

It was in the middle of the depression back then, so life was pretty darn difficult in general. In that sense, I think for the people of the day it was just one more bad news story during an already tough time.

There were large areas in the Kahurangi National Park that would have been very isolated places. It was a question of getting on the ground and observing what you could see, and hearing from locals what had happened. There was a 4.5 metre scarp in the Buller Gorge road which is spectacular.

The White Creek Fault Scarp cutting across a road in the Buller Gorge with Horace Fyffe, Geological Survey geologist, undertaking his post-event survey by bicycle. . GNS Science

The White Creek Fault Scarp cutting across a road in the Buller Gorge with Horace Fyffe, Geological Survey geologist, undertaking his post-event survey by bicycle. . GNS Science

As you only had telephone and mail back then, the only way you would have known the places that were affected would have been by the lack of telephone calls coming from certain areas.

Repairing the telephone connection, Upper Buller Gorge. Berryman family.

Repairing the telephone connection, Upper Buller Gorge. Berryman family.

The earthquake happened a long time ago but it’s still relevant today. Every quake teaches us something about how the land behaves. What scientists saw during this quake was in many ways similar to the Kaikoura quake in 2016. Both earthquakes produced large amounts of uplift, blocked roads and access routes with landslides, and isolated towns.

Kelvin recently gave a talk about the Alpine Fault in Murchison for the AF8 roadshow - link here

Always remember, when an earthquake strikes, move no more than a few steps and then Drop, Cover and Hold.

If you are at the beach or live near the coast and the quake was Long or Strong, Get Gone to higher ground immediately in case a tsunami follows the quake.

Drop, Cover and Hold

Drop, Cover and Hold