New Zealand downgrades tsunami threat, says people can return home

New Zealand downgraded its tsunami threat level hours after several strong earthquakes, after the National Emergency Management Agency said that the largest waves had passed.

Thousands of New Zealanders moved to higher ground after 3 earthquakes in less than 8 hours

(CBC News)

New Zealand downgraded its tsunami threat level hours following several strong earthquakes — including one of the strongest to hit the South Pacific in modern history — after the National Emergency Management agency said in its latest update that the largest waves have now passed. 

"All people who evacuated can now return," it said.

Thousands of New Zealanders on the east coast of the country's North Island had evacuated to higher ground on Friday, and its biggest city was put on alert after three offshore earthquakes in less than eight hours triggered tsunami sirens and warnings.

Workers, students and residents in areas like Northland and Bay of Plenty, on the northern coast near Auckland, were assisted by civil defence officials as authorities said tsunami waves could reach three metres above tide levels.

An emergency alert was also issued for all coastal areas around Auckland, a city of 1.7 million, where people were told to stay away from the water's edge. 

There were small wave surges in some places, including at Tokomaru Bay near Gisborne. By afternoon, the National Emergency Management Agency said the threat had passed and people could return to their homes, although they should continue avoiding beaches.

There were no reports of damage or casualties from the quakes.

Warnings issued around the Pacific

The third and strongest quake, with a magnitude of 8.1, struck the Kermadec Islands, northeast of New Zealand's North Island at 8:28 a.m. local time. This came shortly after a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in the same region at 6:41 a.m.

Just a few hours earlier, at 2:27 a.m., a large 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck about 900 kilometres away on the east of the North Island and was felt by tens of thousands of people.

People gather on high ground in Whangarei, New Zealand, as a tsunami warning is issued on Friday. (Mike Dinsdale/New Zealand Herald via The Associated Press)

Tsunami warnings were also put out for Pacific islands including New Caledonia and Vanuatu, while smaller tsunami waves may be recorded as far away as Antarctica and parts of South America, the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

Australia issued a marine tsunami threat for Norfolk Island but said there was no threat to the mainland. Chile said it could experience a minor tsunami.

There was never any threat to Canada's West Coast. 

'About as big as it gets'

"Hope everyone is OK out there," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wrote on Facebook during the night.

Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan told reporters that people had followed the advisory.

"They felt the long or strong earthquakes, and they knew to grab their bag and head into the highlands," she said. "I can only thank and acknowledge the tireless efforts of the men and women from up and down the coast who knew how to act, when to act, and what to do."

Scientists said Friday's series of quakes was caused by tectonic movement on the boundary of the Australian and Pacific plates, part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire that New Zealand sits on.

A decade ago, a magnitude 6.3 quake killed 185 people in the South Island city of Christchurch.

Traffic moved slowly and people made their way to high ground at Whangarei, New Zealand, after a tsunami warning. (Mike Dinsdale/New Zealand Herald via The Associated Press)

Jennifer Eccles, an earthquake expert at the University of Auckland, said the 8.1 quake was at the top end of the scale for those involving only the Earth's ocean crust.

"This is about as big as it gets," she said.

She said most quakes larger than magnitude 8.0 tend to occur when a section of more robust continental crust is involved.

Waves of 30 centimetres were measured by ocean gauges in Vanuatu, New Zealand and islands off Australia.


  • An earlier version of this story stated that there was a threat to Wellington and other regions. Reuters has since updated its report to say there was no threat to the area.
    Mar 04, 2021 2:13 PM ET

With a file from The Associated Press and CBC News