the five technologies we can use to prevent catastrophic earthquake damage

Earthquakes might be both powerful and inevitable. But we have the tools to soften their blows, save millions of lives, and save billions when cleaning up after them.

earthquake aftermath

Although we don’t talk enough about this, Earth is an extremely active planet. Sliding and subducting tectonic plates mean lots of tension that will inevitably be released and send solid ground trembling and fracturing. And according to most seismologists and geologiests, we’re not doing nearly enough to protect ourselves from these unpredictable phenomena and are facing hundreds of billions in damage and risking tens of thousands of lives because it’s simply not a priority of many politicians. That’s true even around the Ring of Fire, the 40,000 kilometers of Pacific coastline which is home to over a billion people, three fourths of the planet’s volcanoes, and the origin of 90% of all earthquakes.

Looking at the stats, you might be wondering why that’s the case and the simple answer is that preparing for major quakes is expensive and time consuming, especially since it has to involve retrofitting older buildings to survive the shaking and thorough inspections. What makes the problem worse is that a major quake could happen once a decade or once every few hundred years which means that politicians usually elected to terms that last between four and six years aren’t exactly prioritizing something that could happen tomorrow or 500 years in the future and at any time in between.

So, basically, it’s just a risk they choose to take, especially when their constituents are much more worried about the economy and whatever geopolitical tensions dominate the news. But let’s pretend for a moment that powerful politicians all over the world suddenly decided to take earthquakes seriously. They’d inspect millions of homes across dozens of countries at risk of being hit with tidal waves or leveled by the P and S waves of the quakes, take note of the fixes that would need to be made, and implement one or more of the following precautionary mechanisms.

1. levitating foundations and seismic buffers

What’s the best way to keep important buildings from sustaining heavy damage as the ground under them shakes? Make sure they’re not attached to the ground. Well, technically, levitated foundations aren’t literally levitating, but they use everything from ball bearings and shock absorbers, to cushions of air to let the ground underneath move while the building corrects itself or is forced to float slightly above the fray. Its occupants will definitely feel the back and forth motion, but the damage will be negligible, if there is any.

Using this approach on labs housing hazardous materials, warehouses storing flammable or toxic substances, government offices, military bases, and designated emergency shelters would mean they are open, up, and running to coordinate cleanups, help those injured and displaced, and to protect dangerous materials from being released and making matters worse.

2. liquid dampers

Tall building that would sway until they start to break in the event of a massive quake need to regain their stability and quickly. Large liquid dampers which use oil or other heavy, viscous fluids to counteract the back and forth motion may not safe the building from sustaining serious damage, but they would at least help it hold itself together until its occupants can safely evacuate, and prevent it from toppling over, causing even more damage. There are also dampers that rely on friction to keep the energy of a seismic event of being absorbed by the building’s frame and can accomplish the same goal, in case liquid dampers can’t be accommodated.

3. steel cables

Another way to help tall buildings in earthquake zones remain upright is to use steel cabling firmly anchored into solid bedrock. The tension will keep the structure from swaying too much and will keep it from toppling over by pulling back to its center of gravity and holding it there. There may certainly be damage to load bearing beams, facade, and internal piping, but fixing them is a lot cheaper than building everything anew, and not having them fall into the street below, injuring anyone in the vicinity, is invaluable.

4. seismic invisibility cloaks

While anything called an invisibility cloak sounds like either magic or science fiction, it’s really just a catchy name for a perimeter around buildings meant to deflect incoming pressure waves, generally consisting of rings filled with wave-reflecting or absorbing materials. Think of them like breakwaters surrounding a beach because they work in much the same way and could be used to help protect entire neighborhoods. Unfortunately, they do some with a catch. If they’re built with little thought to the surrounding areas, they might end up redirecting the quake’s energy to nearby buildings and exacerbate the damage.

5. fiber-reinforced plastic wraps

Sometimes, historic buildings need to be preserved but the materials from which they’re made are prone to cracking and falling when hit by a large enough tremor. Even if their internals are fine, their facade might not only be severely damaged, it could be a hazard to those walking, or more likely running, past. This is why engineers came up with fiber-reinforced plastic wraps which hold brittle facades in place, as well as quickly reinforce structures built with little regard for tremors. The goal isn’t necessarily to prevent any damage whatsoever, but to minimize it, and avoid either large pieces breaking off and raining down on people trying to take shelter, or a catastrophic collapse, enabling faster repairs during the cleanup.

So, in short, we have the technology and the know-how to minimize damage from earthquakes in a region where they’re extremely common and can be incredibly damaging. We just need to make applying it a priority. Will it be expensive? Absolutely. Will it be a flashy project the public will quickly get behind? Absolutely not. But investing in minimizing the hazards and the fallout from the kinds of massive tremors that can level cities in seconds will save a lot more money in the long run. Because it’s not a matter of if a powerful quake will hit a major city that might not be ready for it, it’s a matter of when.

# tech // earthquake / engineering / seismology


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