Last month, Turkey and Syria suffered a powerful 7.8-magnitude earthquake that had a devastating impact, leaving at least 53,000 people dead according to reliefweb.int. Similar to Turkey, California resides along an active fault line.
On Dec. 20, California experienced a 6.4-magnitude earthquake. Smaller than Turkey’s earthquake, there were only 2 fatalities. On July 5, 2019, California experienced a 7.1 magnitude earthquake with zero fatalities, according to the California Department of Conservation. So what is it that protects California? The answer comes down to infrastructure.
Joshua Zahnd, senior civil engineering major, explained what distinguishes infrastructure across borders.
“The two biggest obstacles I have seen that prevent Turkey and other countries from having better infrastructure are a lack of resources and a lack of a strong check-and-balance system that ensures design standards are met,” Zahnd said.
Prior to the recent earthquake in Turkey, the country did have seismic design codes that aligned with global standards. The devastation was a result of poor implementation of those codes.
“The problem [in Turkey] is their bad practice and corruption in the government and industry site,” said Dr. Jong-Wha Bai, professor of civil engineering. “They did not implement those seismic provisions into the construction phase and even the maintenance process.”
Engineers had warned the Turkish government of the hazardous building conditions. After being informed of the need for infrastructure improvements, no changes were made. Still more engineers advised construction bans along fault lines. However, their concerns were once again ignored.
“If [Turkey] followed design specifications and the design code in their construction, their damage and consequences might be way less than right now,” Bai said.
This is the difference between infrastructure practices in Turkey compared to the U.S. The civil engineering industry in the U.S. is designed to prevent bad practices.
“It’s not just the design code, but also we have to maintain the quality of practice in the construction industry,” Bai said.
This philosophy has allowed the U.S. to achieve the highest level of building safety in the world. These priorities are also seen in California, no stranger to major earthquakes.
“California follows a strict seismic design code intended to protect life safety and prevent the collapse of a structure,” Zahnd said. “At the very minimum, the building code allows for little damage to the structure in the case of a large earthquake, but no buildings that comply with the code should collapse.”
These standards were not developed overnight. It was a process of learning from the damage of earthquakes such as the 6.6-magnitude 1971 San Fernando earthquake or the 6.7-magnitude 1994 Northridge earthquake. These earthquakes have provided crucial information for current seismic building codes.
A committee made up of engineers, scientists, government sector employees and insurance companies gather after major earthquakes to discuss the factors at play.
“We ask what was wrong and what we can do to improve the performance of those buildings and infrastructure for future earthquakes,” Bai said. “We investigate not only the technical and structural point of view, but also if there is anything happening in the practice side or any sort of government issue.”
These committee meetings have led to significant changes in seismic building codes over the years and changes will likely continue to be made in the future. Apart from simply observing the damage of past earthquakes, these changes can also be made from experimental testing. The civil engineering program at CBU is designed to do just that.
A shake table was installed last summer to give students hands-on experience working with seismic infrastructure techniques. This table is able to “shake” to simulate an earthquake and determine whether the model structure is adequately stable. The shake table is also used for research purposes as well as for K-12 students outside CBU. The end goal is to inspire others to pursue engineering careers and increase knowledge of infrastructure design codes.
Civil engineering, while largely unacknowledged, plays a significant role in our society.
“Infrastructure is very important for every community,” Bai said. “It provides essential day-to-day life activities for every person living in that community. It’s directly impacting the economy and people’s life quality.”
This idea of civil engineering having a direct impact on society was echoed by Zahnd.
“People need to feel safe in the buildings they enter and should always be protected by the building in the case of emergency,” Zahnd said. “Perhaps the greatest responsibility of engineers and contractors is to use their skills and knowledge to provide safe structures that allow people to flourish.”
Communities on active fault lines should look to California for how to implement building safety.