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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Canterbury Gravity Survey

There are a number of urgent scientific studies being carried out around Christchurch to help inform decision makers involved in the repair and recovery process following the recent earthquakes. These projects are being co-ordinated under the Natural Hazards Research Platform which is a collaboration of many of New Zealand's research institutions (universities and Crown Research Institutes).

One of these thirty 'recovery projects' is aiming to gain a more detailed understanding of the subsurface geological structure of the area using geophysical methods such as seismic reflection, magnetism and gravity measurements.

Although we usually think of the gravitational force of attraction at the Earth's surface as being something uniform wherever our location, there are actually subtle variations in different places. These depend on our distance from the equator (latitude), our altitude above or below sea level, the nearby landscape topography, and also the density of underlying rock masses in the crust below us.

Last week I joined a small GNS Science team who have been making a gravity survey over a wide area around Christchurch City and Canterbury. In the second photo, Vaughan Stagpoole, Jiashun Yu and Dan Barker are setting up the GPS base station at a survey mark, to calibrate the GPS location measurements of the gravity survey.

Measurements are made using a gravity meter that contains a very precise spring scale and weight. Minute changes in the force of gravity on the weight result in changes in the extension of the spring and gives a measure of the gravity at a particular location. This is read off on an electronic gauge and verified on a tiny scale in the meter that is observed using a magnifying lens. When readings are taken over a wide area, and latitude, and altitude, as well as local topography are factored in, areas of anomalous gravity can be mapped and interpreted in terms of geological structure. For example, faults completely hidden beneath the sedimentary strata of the Canterbury plains, that have offset underlying high density rocks, will have a distinctive gravity characteristic that is different to areas where the underlying rocks are uniformly flat.

The mapped gravity is used in conjunction with other geophysical observations to get a 3D picture of the subsurface.

Data from different geophysical surveys or other sources (such as aftershock locations) are then overlaid on top of the gravity map to help distinguish significant features. We can look at some earlier surveys to illustrate this:.

This is the present geological map of the Christchurch area, with different colours denoting the different rock types that occur immediately below the surface soil. The pink colours show volcanic rocks such as old lava flows that make up the Banks Peninsula, whilst the yellow and buff colours are sediments such as gravels that have been eroded off the mountains and laid down by rivers across the Canterbury Plains. Red lines are surface rupture faults, including the Greendale Fault in centre left, that ruptured during the September 4th earthquake. (The fault under the Port Hills that moved on February 22nd is not shown here as it is a 'blind' fault that did not extend to the surface).

This diagram is a gravity map of the same area. It was compiled recently from data collected some years ago. The colours show gradients of gravity intensity. You can see that quite a number of features become visible that are not seen on the geological map. Several of the linear structures are caused by fault lines criss-crossing through the basement rocks underneath the superficial rock deposits. If you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see many little red dots. These are the measurement stations where the actual gravity readings were taken.  You will notice that there are significant gaps in some places where data from adjacent stations is extrapolated to fill in the map, rather than actual readings.These are the places where the present gravity survey is being carried out in order to add to this pre-existing data and fill out the missing details.

The last image shows the distribution of aftershocks superimposed on the previous gravity map. (The aftershock data is derived from the GeoNet website Quake Search facility). This helps us to find relationships between basement rock types, their distribution and structure, and the fault ruptures that have been causing the recent earthquakes.

These diagrams were compiled by Bryan Davy who is a geophysicist at GNS Science, specialising in the use of gravity and magnetic data and the use of interactive mapping software.

When the present gravity survey is completed, along with the seismic and magnetic surveys, the added information will further our knowledge of the distribution, length and alignment of fault lines in Canterbury. This information will be included in models that will help evaluate the potential size and frequency of future earthquakes.


Anonymous said...

Gravity is obviously interesting for bumble bees - check out the photo of Vaughan reading the meter!

Andrew said...

LOL.. well, aren't Bumblebees renowned for 'defying gravity' anyway?!!