Confessions from the Geopornsisterhood

rocks wellington

By Sarah McBride

Featured in Capital #40
Subscribe to get the real thing here

Sarah McBride exposes the inner workings of an underground group of natural-disaster fanatics. 

What if I told you there is a secret, select group of women in New Zealand who sit in cubicles and at desks, conversing with each other online, not about shoes, clothes, work, relationships, or cute animals – but rather, about lava? Lots and lots of lava. Pyroclastic flows, too. You might think we’re earth scientists, but we aren’t (most of us, anyway). 

For me, it all started about 10 years ago, when I received an email with the title: “Welcome to the Geopornsisterhood!” It was from Jessica, a new friend from Wellington, so I was curious. 

Underneath a picture of the recently erupted volcano in Chile was a short message:

“The rules are simple. Share your favourite images with the email list. We are public servants (emergency managers, mostly), so please keep the group name in one word or the spam filter will eliminate this email. We all have a favorite geoporn type: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunami, landslides, and we take all kinds.”

I know, I get it. In a post-Christchurch/Kaikoura earthquake environment, this kind of email seems tasteless. We’ve seen a lot of suffering in our country recently from these disasters. But back in 2007, I found the group and its purpose enticing; thrilling. 

I was working in a civil defense in Canterbury and it was largely a man’s world. I can’t tell you the number of times I was the only woman in the room or the only person in heels. I had many wonderful, supportive male colleagues, but I was often ignored, interrupted, and isolated. I was the only person with an emergency management post-graduate degree, I’d worked some largish emergencies overseas, but I was relegated to writing press releases and arranging community meetings. With one email invitation, I felt like I had finally found my people.

The proceeding months led to passionate online exchanges about tsunami-wave heights, earthquakes, sand storms, and wild weather. We also discussed the challenges of working in a complex and emerging field, as emergency management was trying to shake off the old labels of civil defence. 

Our exchanges grew into deep friendships. When I separated from my husband, I was bereft, but teo Geopornsisterhood members stood beside me. In 2010, we travelled to Iceland to view Eyjafjallajökull from the road, to see the geysers and eat putrefied shark. Then, in a small hotel room in Reykjavik, we watched helplessly as the Darfield Earthquake woke New Zealand out of its quiescent slumber. 

I had quit my role in civil defence three weeks earlier. It had been my responsibility to help persuade Cantabrians to prepare for earthquakes. Clearly, I had failed. No one seemed to know that such a thing could even happen in Canterbury. 

As Helen rushed back to work, Jessica and I continued on our journey. From Edinburgh, I moved to the Solomon Islands on a humanitarian mission, hoping I could do some good in the world.

On one not particularly exciting day, I received the news: massive earthquake in Christchurch, casualties expected. I returned immediately to NZ and entered the Chaos that was Christchurch’s emergency response. 

And there my two Geopornsisters were, exhausted, upset, but still working.

In the emergency operations centre in the art gallery, the three of us made quite the team. We were there for each other when the adrenaline kicked in and when the stress got too much. In Christchurch, we were faced with the painful reality of our geopornographic obsession. The loss to our city still strikes at the core of my being.

After spending every waking moment thinking, living, and breathing earthquakes, you do ridiculous things. We created our own traditions to get through. On Fancy Frock Friday, in a desperate effort to normalise the unfathomable, the three of us would wear our best dresses and shoes in the emergency operations centre. There were very dark times, but where were great ones too. Jessica met her husband in the operations centre. 

As the response wrapped up and recovery began, I returned to the Solomons and we in the sisterhood went our separate ways. Helen, after years of working in geology, found love, had a baby, and moved south. Jessica, our ringleader, stayed in Christchurch, working in civil defence.

I finished my PhD on earthquake communication and got the dream job of any Geopornsisterhood alumni, working at GeoNet as information manager. And it is a dream, but with the occasional nightmare, like the m7.8 Kaikoura earthquake that struck on 14 November 2016. I was on call when the ground started shaking that dark morning, and it was Jessica who called in the middle of the chaos to support me through it. 

Our sisterhood love for geohazard and addition to emergency response has now shifted. We no longer need the online reminders of what the earth is capable of. The Geopornsisterhood knows. We’ve seen it. We were there.


Sign up to our newsletter