New Earthquake Research Reveals Best, and Worst, Building Locations

A new study finds that surface topography, not solely an area's underlying geology, contributes significantly to earthquake intensity. Researchers hope that the new information can be easily factored into local planning and design processes.
November 8, 2010, 2pm PST | Emily Laetz
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By studying the seismic forces and patterns of destruction to the built environment stemming from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince ten months ago, a team of researchers has found that certain local surface features of an area's topography can have a substantial effect on an earthquake's intensity. These findings have important implications for planning and design of the built environment, especially in places of high seismic activity that are at high-risk of facing earthquake damage in the future.

The research team, led by Susan E. Hough of the United States Geological Survey, examined relationships between various natural topographical features in Port-au-Prince and the level of destruction to the buildings and other manmade structures sitting atop them. Accompanying computer simulations created from real-world data were also created by the researchers to pinpoint just how much movement can be expected on a ridge or slope of a certain height, for example. The findings should assist planners and scientists working to map out regions of the city that are at a higher level of risk in future quakes. This process has been dubbed 'microzonation.'

"In Haiti specifically, Dr. Hough said, scientists developing microzonation maps can now incorporate the topographic effects seen along the ridge in their work to help the country rebuild properly and better survive the next earthquake. And future earthquakes on or near the same fault are inevitable, seismologists say. "Potentially you can say, 'You should build over here, and not there,' " she said."

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Published on Monday, October 18, 2010 in The New York Times
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