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Saving Lives with Earthquake Engineering

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base isolator

Base isolators allow buildings to ride quakes like skateboarders

Photo (c) Andrew Alden, licensed to About.com (fair use policy)

I live in earthquake country, in the San Francisco Bay area, but I confess I'm no better prepared than most people. I lived through our 1957 and 1989 quakes, plus dozens of smaller shakers. In college, earning a geology degree, I learned a bunch of earthquake-related science. The media tells me to be ready for the next big one. I tell you the same. Yet I still haven't worked my way through that quake-preparedness checklist. Human nature is more powerful than common sense.

But truth be told, many of those steps are to save people from inconvenience. Stockpiling a few days' food and water, planning what-if scenarios, keeping stashes of money handy—if you don't do those things you'll regret it, but you won't die. People die when structures fail. Bridges that break, gas and water lines that rupture, crumbling schools—buildings that collapse are what kill people. Individuals can't protect themselves against all that. To save lives, society must ensure that things are built to remain standing safely after a shock. That's why earthquake engineering is so vital.

In the late 1990s, the National Science Foundation funded three new institutions devoted to earthquake safety, in California, Illinois, and New York. Only the second one is truly new—the others have long been on the web. All of them, and two more places I'll show you, have lots to offer.

The Western Center: PEER

The California center, the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center or PEER, is in Berkeley. PEER coordinates studies among nine Western colleges so that the equipment is used efficiently. It has the country's first and biggest shake table at the University of California Berkeley, six meters on a side. It can take a building model weighing 580 tonnes and subject it to forces 1.5 times gravity in any direction. PEER tuhs allows researchers up and down the coast to test structures in accurate simulations of many historic earthquakes. It also administers the open-source simulation software package OpenSees.

For you and me, though, PEER's best service is its information arm, the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering or NISEE. It's got several great databases, such as the image bank. Browse through its photo collection, dating back to the 1868 Hayward, California quake and including quakes from around the world. NISEE also has a large collection of quake-related software, seismographic data to go with it, tens of thousands of literature citations, and a database of protective systems whose value for engineers is incalculable.

The Eastern Center: MCEER

The New York center is called the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research or MCEER, which was founded in 1986 in Buffalo. Like most of the eastern United States, Buffalo is earthquake country, but a different kind than California. Eastern quakes are rare, but severe, and when they occur they affect a large area thanks to the thick, cold, stiff crust there.

The Buffalo site is hard-core. Its George Brown Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) ties together research over the whole continent. And its Information Service has enormous databases for stuff related to earthquakes, landslides and other geo-disasters as well as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The MCEER Newsletter is a handy way to keep up with it all.

The Central Center: MAEC

The newest research center in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois is the Mid-America Earthquake Center. Illinois is earthquake country, within striking distance of the Reelfoot fault where the terrible New Madrid quake cluster of 1811–12 took place.

MAEC is pursuing a major initiative that aims to treat seismic risk in a much more widely integrated way than in the past. Not just buildings, but whole regional systems can be assessed in the approach called consequence-based risk management. It also presents lots of earthquake-preparedness advice for a population that doesn't think about earthquakes very often.

The Nonfederal Sector: EERI and WSSPC

EERI, the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, has been out there stalking the wild temblor since 1949. This nonprofit society, headquartered in Oakland, California, takes its membership from the engineering industry as well as planners, colleges, and government science agencies, and it has a respected place at the policy-making table. EERI experts fly to the scene of fresh quakes, along with all the TV news crews. They do the same for other recent quakes that don't make the news. Since the l'Aquila earthquake of 2009, EERI has been preparing clearinghouse pages dedicated to significant earthquakes, posted at eqclearinghouse.org.

The state governments fit into the picture too. A great example of what your state taxes pay for is the Western States Seismic Policy Council or WSSPC, a group of 13 western American states and Canadian provinces, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. All of these places are earthquake country, and the WSSPC site has links to expert advice from each of those places. It also has an excellent list of tsunami resources. After all, the Pacific coast, the whole thing, is tsunami country too.

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