Hugh Cowan

Citation on the award of Life Membership, April 2020

Dr Hugh Cowan is conferred with life membership for his extraordinary contributions to earthquake engineering over the course of his career both overseas and within New Zealand.

Following his education in geology, engineering geology and seismology at Victoria and Canterbury Universities Hugh was awarded Norwegian Research Council post-doctoral fellowships and contributed to geological hazard assessments in Scandinavia, the Middle East and Latin America before moving to Panama City and consulting to international and regional development programmes.

On his return to New Zealand in 1998, Hugh joined GNS Science and led the establishment of GeoNet, New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system before joining EQC to lead the research programme. In this role Hugh was influential in directing research funding to areas of most scientific and national importance. Because of his recognised authority in the field, he was able to shift and re-balance funding in a way which retained the support of the academic communities. The results of his work are reflected in the knowledge of this country’s exposure to seismic events and ways of mitigating their impacts.

During and after the main earthquakes of the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence, Hugh worked tirelessly for New Zealand providing invaluable advice and expertise to the EQC board and by traveling extensively to and working at many different reinsurance groups around the globe. Hugh is well regarded with an extensive network of colleagues, contacts and peers within New Zealand and internationally, both in the science and research domain, as well as reinsurance. Hugh’s scientific understanding of New Zealand’s geology and seismic history was invaluable to EQC’s reinsurance partners. His expertise and stamina were essential for securing cost effective earthquake and natural hazard insurance for New Zealand while Hugh’s personal international linkages with his peers resulted in numerous offers of support and technical expertise following the Canterbury events.

Hugh’s contributions to earthquake science and engineering have included sponsorship of full-scale field tests of shallow foundations for residential structures following the Canterbury Earthquake Sequence. He helped enlist international expert advice and technologies to ensure the tests were designed and performed to the highest standards.  This work not only led to substantial improvements for Christchurch, but for liquefaction protection worldwide.

Hugh has overseen academic research that supported some of the best minds and effective researchers in the world.  The support set up by Hugh provides New Zealand with world-class research culture and a strong basis for science and engineering to inform and reduce future impacts of hazard events.

Hugh has also contributed significantly to NZSEE including being part of the management committee for several years and through leading a number of learning from earthquake teams to Colombia, Thailand and Chile.

The Society is very pleased to acknowledge Hugh’s outstanding commitment to earthquake engineering through this award of Life Membership.