Earthquake Shaking and Damage to Buildings

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Science  22 Aug 1975:
Vol. 189, Issue 4203, pp. 601-608
DOI: 10.1126/science.189.4203.601


Ground shaking close to the causative fault of an earthquake is more intense than it was previously believed to be. This raises the possibility that large numbers of buildings and other structures are not sufficiently resistant for the intense levels of shaking that can occur close to the fault. Many structures were built before earthquake codes were adopted; others were built according to codes formulated when less was known about the intensity of near-fault shaking. Although many building types are more resistant than conventional design analyses imply, the margin of safety is difficult to quantify. Many modern structures, such as freeways, have not been subjected to and tested by near-fault shaking in major earthquakes (magnitude 7 or greater). Damage patterns in recent moderate-sized earthquakes occurring in or adjacent to urbanized areas (17), however, indicate that many structures, including some modern ones designed to meet earthquake code requirements, cannot withstand the severe shaking that can occur close to a fault.

It is necessary to review the ground motion assumed and the methods utilized in the design of important existing structures and, if necessary, to strengthen or modify the use of structures that are found to be weak. New structures situated close to active faults should be designed on the basis of ground motion estimates greater than those used in the past.

The ultimate balance between risk of earthquake losses and cost for both remedial strengthening and improved earthquake-resistant construction must be decided by the public. Scientists and engineers must inform the public about earthquake shaking and its effect on structures.

The exposure to damage from seismic shaking is steadily increasing because of continuing urbanization and the increasing complexity of lifeline systems, such as power, water, transportation, and communication systems. In the near future we should expect additional painful examples of the damage potential of moderate-sized earthquakes in urban areas. Over a longer time span, however, we can significantly reduce the risk to life and property from seismic shaking through better land utilization, improved building codes and construction practices, and at least the gradual replacement of poor buildings by more resistant buildings.

Progress toward reducing risk from seismic shaking through better building design is slowed by deficiencies in our knowledge about the nature of damaging ground motion and the failure mechanisms in structures. For example, lacking observational data, seismologists must rely on simplified theoretical and numerical models of the earthquake process to estimate near-fault ground motion, especially for earthquakes as large as magnitude 7 and 8. Because such models have not been adequately tested against data, their reliability is unknown. Engineers lack detailed information about failure processes in structures during an earthquake. Although many structures have been instrumented to measure their response to an earthquake, few records have been obtained from buildings that actually sustained significant structural damage and few structures are properly instrumented to measure all the modes of deformation that are likely to contribute to failure. Moreover, the fact that many structures have withstood ground motion more intense than that assumed in their design indicates that conventional methods of design do not take into account important contributions to earthquake resistance by nonstructural elements and by the ability of structural elements to deform inelastically without necessarily causing failure of the structure. It is fortunate when such reserve resistance exists, but better understanding of the sources of reserve strength is needed to determine how large a margin of safety they confer and how they might be affected by changes in construction practices and materials with time.

In the next few years we look forward to significant advances in knowledge and to more effective application of what is already known, largely because of substantial funding of research related to seismic engineering by the National Science Foundation (18). The increasing number of strong-motion seismographs operating in seismically active regions (19) will likely provide for the first time a number of records of damaging levels of ground motion. Significant effort is being directed toward obtaining near-fault records, although many probable sites of future large earthquakes remain inadequately instrumented, especially outside the conterminous United States. New and more complete information on building response and damage mechanisms will be obtained by improved instrumentation of structures and through laboratory investigations of failure in structures and structural elements. Further developments in computer technology and in computer modeling techniques will permit more realistic simulations of the seismic response of soils and structures that take into account their inelastic behavior and their strain-dependent properties. Earthquake design codes will continually be revised to better utilize existing knowledge concerning the nature of strong ground motion and the dynamic behavior of buildings during earthquakes and to incorporate new knowledge and also experiences gained from future earthquakes. We believe that application of new knowledge, improvements in earthquake-resistant design and construction, and remedial strengthening or replacement of weak existing structures can significantly reduce our current level of exposure to earthquake hazards.