Paleogeographers believe that the seven continents of the world, as we now know them, were once configured differently in one massive super-continent. Hundreds of millions of years ago, Pangaea split into two super-continents – Laurasia (in the northern hemisphere) and Gondwana (in the southern hemisphere). The theory of continental drift posits that the Earth’s land masses and sea floors are floating like crusty plates on a mantle of molten rock. The floating plates are constantly colliding with each other. Sometimes the edges of two adjacent plates will bind together, build up immense frictional force, and then violently release in the form of an earthquake.
The Gondwana super-continent once consisted of what we now call Antarctica, South America, Africa, Australasia, the Arabian Peninsula, and India. From fossil records, it is believed that New Zealand probably started to split away from Gondwana in the Mesozoic era. The Pacific plate continues to dive under the Australian plate right underneath New Zealand to this day. Any town or city built near the subduction zone, or indeed near a fault line (weak spot) on either plate is in peril. The capital city of Wellington is built directly on top of several active fault lines. Since Kiwis apparently have a twisted sense of humour, they also put their capital in the windiest location they could find. But that’s a story for another day. Meanwhile, Auckland is built on top of dozens of volcanoes. Go figure.
The city of Christchurch is the largest city on the south island. It was established in the mid-1850s on the east coast of the south island, and its layout and architecture show a strong English garden-city influence. Despite being built on what was thought to be solid foundations, the city was forever changed by two major earthquakes and multiple aftershocks. A magnitude 7.1 quake in September 2010 caused widespread property damage. Just as the city was starting to recover, a more violent quake in February 2011 caused several buildings to collapse, killing 185 people. Imagine living in a city that has registered more than 40 magnitude 5.0 or greater earthquakes in a little over two years – this is the reality that residents wake up to every day in Christchurch. The various levels of New Zealand government are doing what they can to put the city back together, but the scope of the damage is unprecedented and reconstruction will take years, if not decades.
I flew into Christchurch on Sunday morning, and while at the airport I decided to check out the Antarctic Centre. The museum presents an excellent overview of life at the South Pole, the history of polar exploration, the way that research bases have evolved over time, and the importance of scientific research to understanding global warming. There is also an exhibit that showcases about twenty adorable Little Blue Penguins.
By mid-afternoon I made my way downtown and checked into my hotel. The concierge suggested I go for a walk through Hagley Park and the botanical gardens, and then check out the central business district on my way back. The park was verdant and relaxing, with more colours of roses than I’ve ever seen. But walking a loop around the CBD was a real eye-opener.
Several blocks of downtown remain closed off, particularly around Cathedral Square. Chain-link fences separate citizens from reconstruction efforts. I saw several high-rise buildings in the process of being demolished. Spookier still were the ubiquitous gravel lots, where buildings surely used to stand. The biggest problem going forward might be all the buildings that didn’t fall but have had to be abandoned. The easy solution would be to repair the buildings and go on with life as usual. But now that fault lines have been identified near Christchurch, people are understandably reluctant to look at high-rises the same way. I have read that the city’s master planners would like to rebuild downtown Christchurch as a walkable, livable, medium-density city with buildings no taller than seven stories. They surely have a long, tough road in front of them.
After the earthquakes, many people left Christchurch for other cities. The people that stayed inspired me with their perseverance. Despite all the challenges, not least the glacial pace at which insurance companies have been clearing claims, Cantabrians have resolved to move on with life and rebuild their hometown. A shopping mall has been resurrected near the CBD ‘red zone’ using steel shipping containers. In fact, shipping containers have been re-purposed all over town. I walked past one sea-can that had been painted in bright colours, its proprietors now proudly proclaiming to be a Thai restaurant. I wished they were open on Sunday night – instead I settled for a takeaway pizza on Victoria Street that left a bit to be desired. In a nation where you can’t throw a brick without hitting a dairy cow, I’m at a loss to explain why they won’t put more than five skinny strands of mozzarella on a pizza.
While the CBD is a centre of cautious optimism, everyday life is bleaker in some of the Christchurch suburbs. Soil liquefaction after the February 2011 earthquake was so severe that several neighbourhoods may never be rebuilt. It must be heartbreaking to have to walk away from your home and start over from square one elsewhere. I can only hope that the government and the insurance companies do as much as they can to quickly do right by their citizens.
Song of the Day: “Distant Sun” by Crowded House