How Have Earthquakes Shaped Civil Engineering

Civil Engineering

When it comes to earthquakes, an engineer will tell you better safe than sorry. Earthquakes can be incredibly devastating, and throughout history, there have been countless examples of entire cities being brought low, with damage even causing fires and flooding afterwards. Less than a century ago, a strong earthquake could sometimes result in the deaths of many thousands of people. Thanks to advances in civil engineering, the construction of buildings, bridges, roads and highways has progressed resulting in safer structures for our society.

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Text: How Earthquakes Have Shaped Civil Engineering

What States Get Hit the Most?

While California might be the most famous state for earthquakes, it’s actually Alaska that has the most earthquakes by far. Alaska accounts for over half of all of earthquakes that happen in the United States with generally over 2,000 a year. The west coast has some of the most active fault lines, including the famous San Andreas Fault, which explains why these areas see a lot more earthquakes than in other parts of the country where you don’t see nearly as many traditional faults.

That being said, earthquake activity has gone up in the Midwest and even Eastern regions of the United States that traditionally don’t see nearly as many of these types of issues. While early attempts to connect fracking to this seismic activity were brushed off, the evidence is overwhelming that this is the cause.

The fact is 659 earthquakes occurred in 2014 alone in central and eastern states. Only 99 were reported from 2009-2013, and even more damning evidence-wise is only 21 were reported in the decades from 1973-2008. There’s no question that fracking, and the processes around the practice, are causing the majority of this upward spike in cases.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey confirmed that some recent quakes in eight different states were the direct result of man-made causes, including states you wouldn’t think of as having earthquakes like Alabama, Ohio, and Kansas.

While this is never a good sign, at least areas facing these issues have better civil engineering options because of advancements made after terrible past quakes.

History of the Worst U.S. Earthquakes

If you want to look at the worst earthquakes in recent U.S. history, you also need to look at the two states that get the most quakes. That means looking back at California and Alaska. In the case of California, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (the same one reported on by a young Jack London) resulted in over 3,000 confirmed deaths and then lead to a fire that wiped out a good portion of the damaged city.

This was the worst recorded tragedy tied to an earthquake. That quake was a 7.8, and spurred the need for advances in how buildings were designed and built to better withstand the unique pressures that came from earthquakes.

Partly for this reason, and partly just because of the sparse population, “only” 131 people died in the famous Anchorage earthquake in 1964. This earthquake not only destroyed massive amounts of property, but it even changed the landscape in ways that can still be seen today. Along with permafrost, the constant threat of earthquakes demand more from civil engineering in the state of Alaska moving forward.

When looking at these examples through history, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that after every major earthquake, cities wanted stronger buildings that were more resistant to the pressure and exertion caused by the shaking earth.

Why Are Earthquakes so Stressful on Buildings?

Civil engineering requires solving problems in ways that can then actually be used in real life scenarios. One of the particular challenges with earthquakes is that buildings and other structures often only deal with vertical stress or structure on a day-to-day basis, but when the ground shakes and moves that creates horizontal stress.

This is the type of stress that early buildings weren’t designed for, and those were the ones most likely to be damaged during a quake or outright collapse.

This horizontal stress is what is so challenging when it comes to designing exceptionally safe buildings that can withstand even especially strong earthquakes. When looking for ways to reinforce masonry and set up foundations in a way that can absorb more of the pressure on behalf of the building.

Earthquakes Have Driven Civil Engineering Progress

There’s no question that advances in civil engineering have made an enormous difference in not only minimizing property damage but also in saving lives. Whether building better bridges, more shock absorbent buildings, or more sound structures of any kind, the casualty numbers speak for themselves.

Since 1960 in the United States, only 409 people have died from earthquakes, an average of less than 8 a year. The numbers were much higher than that in earlier years – and that’s not even taking injuries into account.

There’s no question that when it comes to earthquakes, society is fortunate for the progress that civil engineering has made.

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