Wellington shakes to 5.8 earthquake

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was live on TV when a quake struck Wellington.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was live on TV when a quake struck Wellington.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was rattled live on television - not by a line of questioning but by a major 5.8 magnitude earthquake on Monday morning.

The earthquake was centred 30km northwest of Levin, a town around an hour's drive north of the New Zealand capital, bringing scares but no reports of major damage.

It was felt most sharply around the South Taranaki Bight, and the closest major city, Wellington, some 100km south.

In the Beehive, the executive government building so named for its distinctive shape, Ms Ardern was being interviewed live on television channel Three, when it hit.

"We're just having a bit of an earthquake here ... quite a decent shake here. If you see things moving behind me," she said,

Ms Ardern is shown looking around to judge her safety as the camera shot shakes lightly.

"The Beehive moves a little more than most," she continued.

"It's just stopped. No, we're fine. I'm not under any hanging lights, I look like I'm in a structurally sound place."

Ms Ardern was interrupted discussing the appropriateness of her fiance, Clarke Gayford, building a new shed.

"The last thing we need is another shed for Clarke. He has two," she said.

Later that afternoon, Ms Ardern revealed the thought going through her mind at the time: "Are you serious?"

Tens of thousands of Kiwis reported the tremor to GNS Science, including some that felt weak shaking as far north as Auckland and as far south as Dunedin.

Wellingtonians felt sustained shaking for around 15 seconds as Kiwis prepared for their day at 7.53am NZST.

CCTV footage has captured groceries falling from shelves in shops close to the epicentre.

Train commuters were also late to work in Wellington as services from satellite suburbs in the north were delayed.

New Zealand lies on the seismically active 'Ring of Fire', a 40,000km arc of volcanoes and ocean trenches girdling much of the Pacific Ocean.

John Ristau, a seismologist with GNS Science, said the earthquake was the second in the area this year to measure above 5.0 magnitude, after 18 years without a similarly strong quake.

"Whenever you get a late magnitude earthquake like this one, there's always a very - emphasise very - small chance it could trigger a larger earthquake," he told AAP.

"By far the most likely scenario is we'll have a lot of aftershocks like there already have been and it will quieten down."

There have been 75 aftershocks in the eight hours after, with 13 of them rated above 3.0 on the Richter scale.

The National Emergency Management Agency quickly ruled out the threat of tsunami.

After enduring the arrival of COVID-19, Twitter user Jords made a light-hearted biblical prediction for New Zealand's next natural disaster.

"I believe after earthquake and plague, the next one is frogs #EQNZ," he wrote.

Australian Associated Press