Earthquake Proof: “The Big One” is a Concern of the Past

What if I told you that a building could withstand a 10.0 earthquake with no damage… What if I told you it’s because the building floats…

Photographer Rafa Zubiría’s photo series No Way Home

Five miles below an awakening community, huge blocks of the earth’s crust unassumingly moved beneath the vulnerable city of San Francisco, California.

5:12 A.M. On the morning of April 18, 1906, sections of earth known as plates collided into each other, engaged in a stubborn standoff; a clash of will ensued. Pressure exponentially built below the soil as each plate attempted to move past the other. As soothing as the relief from cracking one’s knuckles, a pop from the disengagement of the plates brought an end to the battle. The amassed energy released in waves. Like ripples in a disturbed pond, seismic waves radiated in all directions. Following the path of least resistance, the waves navigated their way through the soil on a mission to exit the earth. Upon reaching the earth’s surface, violent shaking was felt over a 200 hundred mile radius. The combination of weak soil and inferior construction methods placed San Francisco in jeopardy. The 7.8 magnitude seismic event rocked the city. Devastating fires erupted as buildings failed all around. The debris from fallen structures restricted firefighters from tending to the blazes. The firestorm raged on, left unchecked for several days. 3,000 people died and over 80% of the city was destroyed. The devastating loss of life and property damage would be estimated at 10.6 billion dollars today (adjusted for inflation).

1906 San Francisco Earthquake

While this was one of the United States’ worst seismic events on record, the deadliest earthquake in history occurred in Shansi, China on January 23, 1556. The earthquake was estimated to have a magnitude of 8.0. Damage occurred up to 270 miles from the epicenter and registered a death toll of 830,000 people.

Fixed base and isolated base systems. Image by R. Sugumar, C.S. Kumar, and T.K. Datta

These events throughout history have spurred improvements in construction methods and life safety systems in an effort to protect against seismic events. A base isolation system, for example, protects a structure against earthquake forces by means of a building being constructed in a concrete bed or moat where it can be isolated from the ground. The building rests on flexible bearing points know as base isolators or isolator bearings, allowing the isolators to move with, and absorb the ground movement of, an earthquake while minimally affecting the building above. Base isolation systems have been proven effective and are one of the most popular means of seismic protection; however, they are not earthquake proof.

Advancements in seismology and technology could give way to opportunities to develop systems that preserve building integrity without any damage. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been working on, and has recently implemented, Earthquake Early Warning (EEW) Systems. These monitoring systems are intended to detect earthquakes prior to their seismic waves reaching the earth’s surface, notifying others an earthquake is expected to occur in a given area, seconds to minutes before. Downloadable applications like ShakeAlert have been sending test notifications to selected users in California since 2012.

Superconductor levitating (Image: David Parker/IMI/Univ. of Birmingham High TC Consortium/Science Photo Library)

Imagine a building constructed in a foundation bed, similar to a base isolation system. Upon the receipt of a signal, an electric charge begins to flow through two layers of metal panels between the building and the foundation bed. A liquid coolant quickly drops the temperature of the panels producing a cloud of cool fog that billows from the base. The foundation bed mechanically pulls away from the building. The building begins to hover, left unharmed from the imminent ground shaking below. The building would no longer experience the forces generated from a seismic event, allowing for simplification of the stringent and complex structural designs that are mandated by the building code. This could potentially become a reality by harnessing the capabilities of EEW systems and superconductors.

To begin to understand and appreciate a superconductor, think back to a time where you played with magnets. The magnets would either pull together, or if you flipped one over, the magnets would repel each other. Superconductor is the name of a substance that is experiencing a phenomenon of magnetic stabilization when the substance is cooled below a critical temperature. Two materials are then capable of a stabilized magnetic relationship, perfectly balanced, neither pushing nor pulling each other. Reaching a critical temperature and providing an electric charge initiates the phenomenon. The electric current can flow through a loop of superconducting wire indefinitely with no power source. This act of stabilization is referred to as quantum levitation or quantum locking. Once it achieves levitation or locking, the superconductor will not reorient itself without outside force. To further understand the science and capabilities of superconductors, quantum levitation, and quantum locking, see the following demonstration by Professor Boaz Almog of the High Tc Superconductivity Group, School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University, at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in 2012, as he brilliantly explains these concepts…enjoy.

In the United States, there are 39 states under significant seismic risks, California being one of the highest. Seismologists have identified that California, widely known as “earthquake country,” has approximately 15,000 fault lines. The most significant is the San Andreas fault, which stretches nearly the full length of the state — North to South. As an example of the significance of this fault, geological studies have shown the rate of plate movement along the San Andreas fault has resulted in Los Angeles City Hall moving nine feet closer to San Francisco in less than 100 years. For decades, “The Big One” has loomed over Californians. The impending doom-quake is projected to have a magnitude of 8 or greater, producing devastation within an estimated 50–100 mile radius from the epicenter. Updated findings frequently anticipate greater catastrophe than previously reported. While seismologists work feverishly to develop and improve warning systems and the building industry steadily improves code and construction methods, these incremental improvements may not be enough to counteract the overwhelming power of nature. Greater advancements are needed.

Earthquakes cause devastation worldwide. Science, technology, and knowledge is currently available to develop systems to counteract this natural disaster. Science and building industries must collaborate and actively push the boundaries of design, even toying with the idea of defying gravity. While it may resemble science fiction, this concept is worth the exploration to bring fiction into reality.


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