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Unsung heroes in natural disasters share expertise

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Geotechnical engineers and scientists are the unsung heroes of protecting New Zealanders, their properties and infrastructure from natural hazards, including earthquakes and landslides.

Most New Zealanders may have little awareness of geotechnical engineers and scientists, but their work plays a critical role in keeping people and property safe on these Shaky Isles.

This week, more than 250 scientists and engineers are meeting in Dunedin to share specialist knowledge on landslides, liquefaction and how soil conditions affect the performance of buildings in earthquakes, heavy rain and other natural events.

“Getting all these experts together in one place sharing their particular expertise is absolutely vital in creating safer, more resilient buildings and infrastructure,” says chair of the New Zealand Geotechnical Society Ross Roberts.

Ross says since the Christchurch earthquakes, most New Zealanders have a much better understanding that even the strongest house can be severely damaged if the land underneath is prone to liquefaction or any other land damage.

“What we do is look at the soil and rock that buildings, roads and pipes sit on and go through,” he explains. “ ’Geotechs’ as we are known, assess if the ground is suitable to build on in specific areas, and then design engineering solutions to address any potential weaknesses in the soil.”

Ross says people in Dunedin will be very aware of these risks after a 2018 landslip forced families in St Clair to leave their homes.

EQC’s chief resilience and research officer, Dr Jo Horrocks, says a good understanding of the ground beneath buildings is essential to ensure New Zealanders are living in strong homes.

“And this is why EQC has been keen to come on board as a major sponsor of this year’s New Zealand Geotechnical Society conference Good Grounds for the Future,” says Dr Horrocks, who will be chairing a conference session.

“The three key things we always want to know are what’s happening in the ground, the type of foundations we put in it, and the structures we build on it. Geotechnical engineers and scientists are the experts at knowing what the ground is like, how it will behave under stress like an earthquake, and how it is likely to affect building foundations in it and on it.”

As well as hearing from New Zealand’s leaders in the field, international guest speakers will be presenting via video link.

The Dunedin community are invited to join the conference for a free open lecture about New Zealand’s natural hazard risk, and the opportunities there are to become more resilient as cities change and grow.

The lecture by Dr Hugh Cowan, will be on Thursday, March 25, 4.30-5.30pm at the Dunedin Centre 1 Harrop Street.

Dr Cowan has long involvement in understanding and managing natural hazard risk, including establishment of New Zealand's geological hazard monitoring system "GeoNet".

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