Quake tests help prepare for ‘the big one’

  • Shakedown: A series of tests on the effects of earthquakes on multi-storey buildings began last week at UC San Diego?s earthquake simulator

    Shakedown: A series of tests on the effects of earthquakes on multi-storey buildings began last week at UC San Diego?s earthquake simulator

In the past two years, earthquakes have been the scourge of the insurance industry. In 2010, Chile was rocked by a massive 8.8 magnitude tremor that killed 500 people and caused $8 billion in insured losses and economic losses of at least twice that. In 2011, quakes in Japan and New Zealand caused record-breaking losses in the tens of billions of dollars. Mexico has also been rattled by a series of strong earthquakes in recent weeks.

Now, a group of hard-hatted structural engineers at the University of California, San Diego are conducting new simulations that might improve short-and-long-term earthquake forecasting capabilities. Better, more accurate forecasting could affect earthquake insurance, which relies heavily on forecasts. More importantly, it can save lives.

Using the largest ‘shake table’ in the US to replicate huge earthquakes, scientists this week set off a couple of big ones to gather valuable data that shows how earthquakes affect buildings.

Over the next two weeks, they will repeatedly rock the specially-constructed, five-story, 80-foot high building simulating 2010 Chile quake, one of the most powerful ever reported, and one of the costliest, California’s 6.7 North Ridge quake of 1994. Each simulation teaching them about protecting schools, homes and saving lives.

The $5 million, 14 million pound lab took a year to build and is outfitted with more than 500 strategically placed sensors and 80 cameras. It also has heating and air conditioning, functioning sprinklers, computer servers, laboratory equipment, working oxygen lines and electrical equipment and wiring.

The project is the first of its kind because researchers are studying what happens to items inside the building such as elevators, stairwells, lights and medical equipment, rather than just the structure of the building. The initial simulations focused on protecting hospitals that have been devastated in the past but need to remain functioning after an earthquake. The top two floors of the building feature a mock operating room and intensive care unit.

The majority of hospitals in California are built without the technology of isolators, which cushion the blow of a quake to prevent much of the movement on the upper floors of buildings. Last week’s tests show what a difference the isolators can make in minimising the impact of quakes.

The project reflects a new way of thinking among earthquake safety experts who have been focusing on shoring up hospitals, large apartment buildings and schools to protect communities. Researchers expect to publish their findings after spending the next year analysing the data.

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