Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Upper plate deformation and its relationship to the underlying Hikurangi subduction interface, southern North Island, New Zealand

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:57
Version 1 2021-11-23, 10:59
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:57 authored by Ninis, Dee

At the southern Hikurangi margin, the subduction interface between the Australian and Pacific plates, beneath the southern North Island of New Zealand, is ‘locked’. It has previously been estimated that sudden slip on this locked portion of the interface could result in a subduction zone or ‘megathrust’ earthquake of Mw 8.0-8.5 or larger. Historically, however, no significant (>Mw 7.2) subduction interface earthquake has occurred at the southern Hikurangi margin, and the hazard from subduction earthquakes to this region, which includes New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington, remains largely unknown.  Patterns of uplift at active margins can provide insight into subduction processes, including megathrust earthquakes. With the objectives to i) contribute to the understanding of partitioning of margin-parallel plate motion on to upper plate faults, and ii) provide insight into the relationship of permanent vertical deformation to subduction processes at the southern end of the Hikurangi margin, I investigate flights of late Pleistocene fluvial and marine terraces preserved across the lower North Island. Such geomorphic features, when constrained by numerical dating, provide a valuable set of data with which to quantify tectonic deformation - be they locally offset by a fault, or collectively uplifted across the margin.  Fault-offset fluvial terraces along the Hutt River, near Wellington, record dextral slip for the southern part of the Wellington Fault. From re-evaluated fault displacement measurements and new Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) data, I estimate an average slip rate of 6.3 ± 1.9/1.2 mm/yr (2σ) during the last ~100 ka. However, slip on the Wellington Fault has not been steady throughout this time. During the Holocene, there was a phase of heightened ground rupture activity between ~8 and 10 ka, a period of relative quiescence between ~4.5 and 8 ka, and another period of heightened activity during the last ≤ 4.5 ka. Moreover, these results agree with independent paleoseismological evidence from other sites along the Wellington Fault for the timing of ground rupture events. The time-varying activity observed on the Wellington Fault may be regulated by stress interactions with other nearby upper plate active faults.  Net tectonic uplift of the southern Hikurangi margin is recorded by ancient emergent shore platforms preserved along the south coast of the North Island. I provide a new evaluation of the distribution and age of the Pleistocene marine terraces. Shore platform altitudes are accurately surveyed for the first time using Global Navigational Satellite Systems (GNSS). From these data I have determine the shore platform attitudes where they are preserved along the coast. The terraces are also dated, most for the first time, using OSL techniques. The most extensive Pleistocene terraces formed during Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 5a, 5c, 5e and 7a. Because the ancient shorelines are now obscured by coverbed deposits, I use shore platform attitudes to reconstruct strandline elevations. These strandline elevations, corrected for sea level during their formative highstands, have been used to quantify rates of uplift across the southern Hikurangi margin.  In the forearc region of the Hikurangi margin, within ~70 km of the trough, uplift observed on the marine terraces along the Palliser Bay coast monotonically decreases away from the trough. The highest uplift rate of 1.7 ± 0.1 mm/yr is observed at the easternmost preserved terrace, near Cape Palliser, about 40 km from Hikurangi Trough. Further to the west, at Lake Ferry, uplift is 0.8 ± 0.1 mm/yr. The lowest rate of uplift, 0.2 ± 0.1 mm/yr, is observed at Wharekauhau, the westernmost marine terrace preserved on the Palliser Bay coast. Overall, the terraces are tilted towards the west, away from the trough, with older terraces exhibiting the most tilting. This long-wavelength pattern of uplift suggests that, in this forearc region of the margin, deep-seated processes, most likely subduction of a buoyant slab in combination with megathrust earthquakes, are the main contributors to permanent vertical deformation.  West of Palliser Bay, at a distance of >70 km from the Hikurangi Trough, vertical offsets on the marine terraces are evident across upper plate faults, most notably the Wairarapa and Ohariu Faults. The uplift rate at Baring Head, west and on the upthrown side of the Wairarapa Fault, is as much as 1.6 ± 0.1 mm/yr. At Tongue Point, where the Ohariu Fault offsets the marine terraces preserved there, uplift calculated from the western, upthrown side of the fault is 0.6 ± 0.1 mm/yr. These uplift rates suggest that, in the Axial Ranges, in addition to sediment underplating, movement on the major active upper plate faults also contributes to rock uplift.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Little, Timothy; Litchfield, Nicola