Career

The disaster expert making sure New Zealand is ready

Wellingtonian Caroline Little (34) is a seismologist and public information specialist.

By Ciara Pratt
She enjoys being part of a close-knit global scientific community.
She enjoys being part of a close-knit global scientific community.

"Every night, I sleep with my phone right under my pillow. As a seismologist, I need to be able to head straight to work as soon as something happens.

The adrenaline of it is a double-edged sword – it’s difficult, but it does make the job really interesting and you know what you are doing is worthwhile.

I actually started off my working life on an oil rig in Taranaki. I went over to the North Sea in the UK, but realised it was a very uninspiring job – you are stuck on a rig in the middle of the ocean with a group that is 95 per cent male.

I came back to New Zealand, completed my Master’s degree in geology and geophysics, and landed a job at Geonet in 2009.

It’s been a big learning curve. This has definitely been a period in which there have been a lot of earthquakes. My role as a seismologist and public information specialist means I have to be a jack of all trades. Basically, I do a lot of science communication. I’m interpreting and translating what scientists are doing to help the public understand.

I’m also a duty seismologist when we have earthquakes. During the Canterbury earthquake, I was doing a lot of fieldwork. We would go and put out instruments that would be able to give us good information about the aftershocks, often right where the fault lines had ruptured to the surface.

Sometimes we use an accelerometer – it’s basically a sensor in a box – and we bolt it down in someone’s garage. We use another sensor that we’ll bury in someone’s backyard, which we’ll go back to every month or two to make sure they’re still working and to retrieve the data.

We’ve learned a lot and there’s definitely a lot of world-leading science happening. Since Canterbury, we’ve developed aftershock forecasting.

It’s a close-knit global scientific community. We all talk to one another and share our information and data. Other countries are learning from us, which is great. We want our research to help as many people as possible.

Caroline learnt a huge amount during the Canterbury earthquakes.
Caroline learnt a huge amount during the Canterbury earthquakes.

It’s definitely a taxing job, though. In the first couple of days after an earthquake, it’s hard to cope with the human aspect of it, while also focusing on the important job you have to do.

Scientists and the public are relying on us to get information to them. After the Kaikoura earthquake, most of the team here at Geonet were awake for 36 hours straight. It’s a team effort with everyone coming together and you certainly learn what you are capable of.

Kaikoura was a complicated earthquake – just the fact it affected such a large area. I think there were at least a dozen faults that ruptured to the surface and some 80,000 landslides were caused.

I was pregnant, in my first trimester, when it struck. Having the earthquake taking place and all of that work going on, I didn’t have time to feel the morning sickness. I think it actually helped me not to feel so ill because there was just so much work to do!

The relentlessness of this job is challenging. When something big happens, you just have to drop everything and devote your whole life to work. We’d be working 12-hour days for weeks, working every weekend, and being on call during those few hours we weren’t actually at work. My husband Andy definitely picked up the slack at home with our little boy Finn (2) during that time.

New Zealanders really amaze me with the amount of insight and knowledge we now have. Before the Canterbury earthquake, not many people knew what the word liquefaction meant, but now most Kiwis would know what you were talking about and could easily have a conversation with you about it.

The earthquakes have been really devastating and they’re still ongoing. It’s always in the back of your mind the toll the quakes are taking. It does make me thankful I’m doing something worthwhile in this situation.

I can see the impact my job has on people right away. And one thing is for sure, like many New Zealanders, I know I’m much more prepared now than I was five years ago in case of an earthquake.”

Quick fire
My favourite way to unwind… Lying on the couch with a book.

My favourite NZ holiday destination… Hawke’s Bay.

If I wasn’t doing this job, I’d… Well, I did apply for a role as a receptionist in Club Med before I got the oil rig job. I often wonder how my life would have looked...

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