Carbon dating earthquakes

Are these findings entirely new?

Is an earthquake behind carbon dating of Shroud of Turin image?

These findings are entirely new for the Alpine Fault. Prior to this project, the ages of only the last four Alpine Fault earthquakes were well known.


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Long records with more than 20 earthquakes have been obtained from other faults around the world such as the San Andreas Fault in California, but they are very rare. The Alpine fault is perhaps only the fifth such long record and it has revealed the most regular rupture behaviour yet reported. What is the take-home message from this investigation? Scientists have found a fault that responds to the steady motion of tectonic plates by rupturing at reasonably regular intervals.

This illustrates that at least some plate boundary faults can be "well-behaved" when they are have high rates of movement and are not influenced by activity on other nearby faults.

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This is at the higher end of existing estimates, which are based on only the last four large quakes on the fault. It simply means the Alpine Fault exhibits a fairly regular cycle of stress accumulation and rupture. It does not have long periods of more than years of inactivity. Equally, it does not have clusters of big earthquakes occurring at short intervals. What are the wider implications of this work? The research has important earthquake hazard implications nationally by providing a much longer record and therefore a more reliable forecast of when the next major earthquake will occur on the southern section of the Alpine Fault.

The last major earthquake on the Alpine Fault occurred years ago. As we are approaching the average time between ruptures - years - there is no better time to get serious with mitigation and preparedness. How might authorities use these findings in disaster planning? Scientists have been communicating results of Alpine Fault research to authorities in New Zealand for many years.

The current research results add confidence to the forecast of average repeat intervals of major earthquakes, the elapsed time since the last earthquake, and most-importantly the relatively regular repeat time. The important things for authorities are to encourage personal and household preparedness, to address earthquake-prone building occupancy in areas near to the fault, and to encourage preparedness actions among emergency services and responding agencies.

What is radiocarbon dating?

Is there a concern that the public might misinterpret these research findings? The public might misinterpret these findings as a prediction — it is not. There is also a possibility of misinterpreting the results as the earthquake being imminent, which it may not be. The mean recurrence interval between the 24 earthquakes is about years. So with an elapsed time of about years since the last big quake, a major earthquake in the near future would not be a surprise. How do scientists account for the variability in rupture intervals - from years to years? There are numerous factors that cause a fault to rupture that can change through time including rock strength, frictional properties of the fault plane, and transfer of stress from other nearby faults.

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Therefore, there will always be some natural variability in the timing of earthquakes. Unfortunately, unforeseen problems with obtaining meaningful radiocarbon ages on some of the trench material and intense weathering of the trees stumps prevented us obtaining the tight age constraints we had hoped for. Nevertheless, the data obtained substantially improved knowledge of rupture history of the fault in the south and opened up further possibilities for addressing the questions raised above.

Detailed mapping of the fault is essentially a single straight trace between the Haast and Turnbull Rivers. Slightly changes in orientation are associated with en echelon traces that overlap each other and are offset from a few to a few tens of meters.

Offset channels show displacements that cluster crudely around 8 and 15m, possibly reflecting the amount of the last, and combined penultimate and last, ruptures respectively. South of the Turnbull River, the surface faulting is more complex with multiple parallel traces in places. The site selected for the trench at the Turnbull River was the only suitable site identified. A 22m long and m deep trench was excavated across the fault. Unfortunately natural contamination of organic material faulted by the penultimate event resulted in widely variable and inconsistent radiocarbon ages and prevented better age constraints being established.

Deposits related to the last event had been highly disturbed during the forest clearance and road construction. Although over 20 samples of trees Rimu were collected and prepared for tree-ring counting, loss of sapwood on most of these, due to the long period of exposure in an inclement climate, prevented their use in establishing well-constrained times of forest disturbance related to possible fault rupture. Detailed investigation of the South Turnbull Swamp established a rapid rate of subsidence over the past years commensurate with that expected from models of fault controlled subsidence.

Inundations of river-derived silt possibly reflect fault ruptures. The current study provided the researchers with a breakthrough.


  1. 8000-year quake record improves understanding of Alpine Fault - 28/06/2012.
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They analysed the carbon-rich sediments using radiocarbon dating. This method — measuring the amount of organic carbon as well as radioactive carbon 14 C in mineralised compounds — has long been a means of determining the age of individual sediment layers. Until now, however, it has not been possible to analyse samples from deeper than 5, metres below the surface, because the mineralised compounds dissolve under increased water pressure.

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Strasser and his team therefore had to use new methods for their analysis. This greatly increases efficiency, since it takes just a single core sample to make more than one hundred 14 C age measurements directly on the organic matter contained within the sediment.


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  • In addition, the researchers applied the Ramped PyrOx measurement method pyrolysis for the first time in the dating of deep-ocean sediment layers. The process involves burning organic matter at different temperatures.

    Because older organic matter contains stronger chemical bonds, it requires higher temperatures to burn. What makes this method novel is that the relative age variation of the individual temperature fractions between two samples very precisely distinguishes the age difference between sediment levels in the deep sea. Thanks to these two innovative methods, the researchers could determine the relative age of organic matter in individual sediment layers with a high degree of precision.