Nothing grows and strengthens without proper nutrition, so my visits to Washington largely involve trawling for additional resources, useful programs, and new ideas for the Embassy. One of the very interesting opportunities that came to my attention a couple years ago is the Department of State’s Science Fellowship Program, which places scientists and engineers from other U.S. Government agencies into our diplomatic missions to help address important scientific challenges in our host countries.

As part of our ongoing commitment to helping our friends in Christchurch, we recruited National Science Foundation (NSF) earthquake engineer Dr. Rick Fragaszy to come to New Zealand for several months. Originally from New York City, Rick worked as a professor for 12 years before joining NSF, where he has worked for more than 13 years on foundation design and earthquake engineering. Rick is at the end of his secondment with us, so I thought I ask him to explain what he’s been up to.

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Rick Fragaszy

Dr. Rick Fragaszy

RF: Thank you, Ambassador. With my background in civil, geotechnical, and earthquake engineering, I was thrilled at the opportunity to come to New Zealand and play a role in the earthquake research taking place here.

My specific task as an Embassy Fellow has been to work with scientists and engineers at GNS Science to investigate the mass soil movements, including landslides, in the Port Hills area of Christchurch.  I am particularly interested in this topic because I have previously studied slope stability in eastern Washington State, in areas where the surface loess (highly porous, loosely cemented) soils are very similar to the loess soils in Port Hills.

For New Zealand, the involvement of the National Science Foundation is not new. The NSF has a long history of providing funding for U.S. researchers to go to the site of a natural disaster to collect data and assess the needs and opportunities for disaster-related research. Within days of the first Christchurch earthquake, NSF’s RAPID award funding allowed U.S. researchers to conduct initial reconnaissance and data collection. Our U.S. earthquake engineers and geologists jumped right in, providing additional people and instrumentation to collect perishable data, evaluate the stability of damaged structures, and, in general, help in any way they could. To date, NSF has provided more than US$ 1.5 million in awards for work directly related to the Christchurch earthquakes.

The Port Hills Rising From the Canterbury Plain (Photo Credit: GNS Science).

The Port Hills rising from the Canterbury Plains.

From the perspective of researchers, the Christchurch series of earthquakes, is not only a terrible human tragedy but also an opportunity for us to do important research which, in the end, will help save lives in the future. The dense array of seismometers in the region provided immense amounts of data to better understand why the damage was so extensive as well as valuable input to engineers and contractors in order to rebuild a safer and more resilient Christchurch.

Christchurch Cathedral moments after the February 22, 2011 earthquake.

Christchurch Cathedral moments after the February 22, 2011 earthquake.

On a broader level, such research can also help reduce the impact of, and even prevent, such disasters elsewhere around the world. Although our joint efforts are already extensive, I believe that we are seeing only the beginnings of a long-term collaboration between U.S. and New Zealand researchers to learn as much as possible from these disasters, and to transfer these discoveries to practical ways of reducing damage and loss of life from future earthquakes.

U.S. and New Zealand scientists are working to better understand how different types of soils and bedrock affect ground motion during earthquakes to help determine how best to rebuild . Click through for image source.

U.S. and N.Z. scientists are working to better understand how different types of soils and bedrock affect ground motion during earthquakes, to determine how best to rebuild.

As a predicate matter, U.S. and New Zealand geotechnical engineering researchers noted the urgent need to better understand the engineering properties of the soils underlying Christchurch. Knowledge of the properties of the soil down to bedrock help us better understand the ground motion that has been measured in previous earthquakes, and what the impact of future earthquakes might be.

T-Rex, a U.S.-based earthquake simulator, has assisted researchers in New Zealand since its arrival in March 2013 (Photo Credit – Rick Fragaszy)

T-Rex, an American earthquake simulator, has assisted researchers in New Zealand since its arrival in Christchurch.

Examining the properties of soil is important but can be an expensive and limited endeavor. One option is to take borehole samples and examine the soil makeup at different depths. Another option is to artificially shake the ground via a large seismic truck and record the ground motions through seismometers extending several hundred meters from the truck – similar to the way geologists hunt for oil deposits.

Data collected from T-Rex helps researchers collect invaluable data about the soil properties in earthquake-affected areas gather than relying on theoretical models (Graph Credit – Farn-Yuh Meng (NEES@UTexas))

T-Rex helps researchers collect actual data about the soil properties in earthquake-affected areas rather than relying on theoretical models.

Although these expensive simulation vehicles are few and far between, NSF provided funding for T-Rex, which is maintained and operated by the University of Texas, as part of NSF’s Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. The New Zealand Government funded the shipment of T-Rex to Christchurch, while NSF has continued to pay the operational costs including the expenses of the American faculty, grad students, and technicians operating the truck. The data collected are being jointly analyzed by researchers from both countries.

Since its arrival, T-Rex has been used to characterize the soils around Christchurch. Its presence always brings out the local population, especially when they feel the ground begin to vibrate! Care is taken to ensure no damage to structures is caused. You will, however, feel the ground shake if you are standing nearby. The researchers operating the truck are always happy to explain what they are doing and teach a little geophysics to local school children. Sometimes, though, the younger children aren’t as excited about the ground shaking as they are about the size of T-Rex’s tires! (We held a special public demonstration of T-Rex back in March at the University of Canterbury.)

Sensors further away from the T-Rex-simulated epicenter record different ground movements that will help determine how future building construction can be earthquake-safe (Graph Credit – Brady Cox (NEES@UTexas))

Sensors farther away from the simulated epicenter record ground movements that will help determine how future building construction can be improved.

In my view the work plan for T-Rex has been a great success. In places, soil more than a kilometer deep has been characterized. T-Rex has also been used to test the newly placed instrumentation in a structure in the CBD, and for preliminary liquefaction experiments. Although the University of Texas team has now returned to the U.S., T-Rex itself will remain here in New Zealand at least through the end of winter. Discussions are underway for the American researchers to return before then to do additional work.

I was happy to be part of this exciting work and hope to get back to New Zealand again sometime soon.

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Thanks to the State Department for sending us Rick and to the National Science Foundation — which has a deep, decades-long relationship with New Zealand through our Antarctic and grant programs — for sending T-Rex. Thanks as well to the great folks at GNS for hosting Rick, and of course to Rick himself for answering the call when we rang him up last year.

As American journalist Edgar Watson Howe said more than a century ago, “When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him by asking if there is anything you can do to help. Think up something appropriate and just do it.” Our Science Fellow deployment falls within that philosophy, and the work being done will help all of us, not only in New Zealand but in the United States and elsewhere around the world.