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California’s Unsung Heroes: Structural Engineers

Posted on April 25, 2016

In the wake of Japan and Ecuador’s recent earthquakes, we are reminded just how important our structural engineers are. They are responsible for engineering resilience into designs so that natural phenomena like earthquakes and strong wind don’t spell disaster for the structure and its occupants.

Ecuador and Japan recently suffered devastating high-magnitude earthquakes just a few days apart. Both quakes have caused massive property damage. Dozens of people were killed in Japan, and hundreds in Ecuador, buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Both countries experienced foreshocks, and are still dealing with aftershocks, more minor earthquakes, that can continue to happen for days or weeks after the initial event.

In California, earthquakes are a major factor in each construction project. We aren’t strangers to seismic activity, especially in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere near the San Andreas Fault Zone. We know the Richter Scale by heart here and experience thousands of earthquakes per year. Many are too minor to feel, and can only be detected with the proper instrumentation.  Though we have no control over Earth’s tectonic activity, we do have control over the way we design and engineer our buildings.

Structural engineers spend many hours planning the best possible design to ensure a structure’s resiliency. If they do their job correctly, an earthquake will not topple even the tallest high-rise. They use a complicated combination of mathematics and materials to create resilient designs. As a result, property and people are left unscathed after tectonic activity, and the building can continue to be used like nothing ever happened. The most basic concept it boils down to is simple: things that bend don’t break that easily. Some buildings in particularly earthquake-prone areas, like Los Angeles, are able to withstand magnitudes of greater that 7 on the Richter Scale.

If you consider the casualty count for both countries, you can see Japan fared better than Ecuador. Japan sits at the edge of the “Ring of Fire”, a geological zone along the edges of the Pacific ocean that is particularly seismically active and home to many volcanoes. Ecuador is also in this zone, on the other side of the Pacific and south of the equator. Japan suffered dozens of casualties, whereas Ecuador had hundreds. What could account for this disparity is the magnitude of the Earthquakes. Ecuador’s strongest quake was 7.8 and Japan’s was 7.0. Japan’s structures were also likely more resilient than Ecuador’s.

Herein lies the silver lining. Japan and Ecuador have an immense amount of rebuilding to do, but this time around they have the opportunity to engineer resilience into their new structures and, hopefully, save some lives the next time a big quake hits.