Research at UNR May Minimize Quake Damage

University of Nevada, Reno
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On average, 12,000 people die every year in earthquakes. Scientists at the Earthquake Engineering Center at the University of Nevada are trying to change that statistic.

Today I had a look at the latest on a new lab expansion.

I saw what would equate to the 6.7 magnitude quake that hit Northridge, California in 1994. The tub of colored water sitting on one of three shake tables shows just how turbulent the quake was.

Lab director Doctor Ian Buckle explains the purpose of this lab.

"To understand how the things we build behave during earthquakes, so we can do it better," he says.

This is the only research facility of its kind in the United States. The shake tables allow researchers to simulate earthquakes at full scale.

Today scientists are experimenting with isolators, which suspend buildings and bridges - much like a car's suspension system - to help prevent damage during a quake.

Once these are in place and operating, I notice how little the water in this tub is moving. It is sitting on a bridge which is stabilized by isolators.

"It goes against conventional wisdom. You'd think to save a building from falling over, you'd tie it down," Buckle says.

Researchers here work closely with the Seismology Department which tracks earthquakes throughout the state - using a network of seismic instruments.

Seismologists say the Silver State is the third most seismically active state in the nation. "Nevada has a magnitude-7 earthquake on average every 30 years or so," says John Anderson of the Seismological Laboratory.

But Nevada hasn't had a large quake since the 1954 quake east of Fallon. Anderson says it would be no scientific surprise if we had a large earthquake at any time . . . they are unpredictable.

That's why labs like this one could eventually prove valuable in saving lives and reducing property damage from quakes around the world.

In the last year, the university has added an extra shake table and retrofitted the two older shake tables to move in four directions - which more closely resembles the movement of a real earthquake.