Earthquake Technology Shakes Loose Some Tech Thoughts Today

We had a middle-of-the night earthquake here in SoCal while we slept, 5.2 on the Richter scale, so technology to deal with and predict earthquakes is top of mind.

When I was young, the best advice I got for dealing with an earthquake was to figure out if the building I was in was a “pancake” or a “gargoyle.” If it was a “pancake,” that meant it would probably collapse on you and you’d better get out. If it was a “gargoyle,” that meant there were things on it that would shake, rattle and roll off that could fall on you and crush you.

We’ve come a long way since then. The advance of technology has been a boon in helping scientists predict earthquakes before they happen and architects build buildings that can better withstand tremors and worse.

The How Stuff Works section of the Science Magazine website has an interesting ten-point article on advances that make newer buildings far more earthquake resistant -- “Tremblor-thwarting technologies,” as they memorably call them.

I’ve personally experienced the first technology in the article, “levitating foundations” that use rubber and lead bearings to “roll” the foundation when an earthquake hits, so the buildings don’t tumble.

I was in L.A., maybe a decade or so ago, in a high-rise when a small-ish earthquake hit, and the building swayed back and forth as if we were on a ship on the high seas. I had never felt anything like that before, and would prefer never experience it again (though I’m sure the alternative is much worse, if offered a choice). I also remember another guy in the building, a born-and-raised East Coast guy, who freaked out, but he and the company shall remain nameless.

Massive shock absorbers, “damping” technology, and -- get this “seismic invisibility cloaks” are only a few of the other advanced technologies to save buildings from earthquake activity. I’d heard here in San Diego, where I write this, new buildings have to be constructed to withstand an earthquake that reaches Magnitude 10 on the RIchter Scale, but I can’t find anything verifying that on the city’s Seismic Safety guide.

Other advancements in technology have created the ability to predict earthquakes, though this seems like a much less exact science than building places that can withstand them. The Early Earthquake Warning (EEW) system captures a rupture in a fault in the earth that sends out waves prior to the actual surface waves of the ground beginning to move. You can have your phone set to receive this information, though you still should probably know if you’re in a pancake or a gargoyle before you choose what to do.

Ultimately, forewarned is forearmed, and the capacity to predict earthquakes before they happen and construct buildings that can withstand them combines the best of both. Hopefully this recent earthquake releases some tension from the shifting plates below our great state, and we won’t have another once for a while. But if we do, everyone should feel better about the ways technology has helped us prepare and predict.