In 2011, a major earthquake struck the city of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand, destroying much of that city’s downtown and resulting in major loss of life. The culprit for that earthquake? A fault that had eluded geologist’s efforts to predict when and where the next major quake would strike the island nation.

The Christchurch earthquake caught scientists by surprise, in part because their efforts have been focused on understanding a fault capable of producing an even larger earthquake – the Alpine Fault.

The Alpine Fault runs from north to south across the entire South Island of New Zealand. It represents the meeting of the Australian plate and the Pacific plane. Like the famed San Andreas fault in California, the Alpine fault is a transverse, or strike-slip, fault.

Paleoearthquake reconstructions show that the Alpine Fault produces a magnitude 8 earthquake in a recurring cycle that lasts about 330 years. The most recent earthquake occurred in 1717, 297 years ago. An earthquake has about a 30% chance of occuring in the next 50 years.

While policymakers are no doubt concerned about the coming earthquake, scientists have decided to take advantage of the situation.

Normally, scientists can only study an earthquake after it occurs, using seismic data collected by a far-flung system of sensors. The Deep Fault Drilling Project, which is sponsored by the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program in Germany and the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, aims to change this.

Their goal: to drill a hole that intersects the alpine fault itself at a depth of 1.3 km. After using wellbore surveying tools to study the fault structure, they will install casing and a permenent system of sensors in the hole. In the event of an earthquake, the sensors will record the details of the vibrations on the fault surface. Unlike previous fault studies, such as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, this study aims to collect data before, during, and after a major earthquake. Most importantly, the sensors will detect changes in the stress state of the fault in the time leading up the the earthquake.

The data will be used to develop more accurate geophysical models, which can be used to quantify earthquake hazards in seismically active regions such as New Zealand.

There’s no telling exactly when the next major quake will strike on the Alpine Fault. But, unlike in 1717, whenever it comes, scientists will be ready.