Disaster Tech: Innovations spurred by earthquakes

By Steve Brachmann
July 22, 2015

nepal-earthquakeSeveral million earthquakes occur worldwide every year according to statistics collected and reported by the U.S. Geological Survey. Most of these are of the low magnitude variety and, on average, less than 1,500 quakes register anything higher than a magnitude-5 score. About once a year, however, some area of the world is rocked by a tremor which surpasses a magnitude-8 score, which can cause considerable damage to entire communities and shift buildings from their foundations.

It didn’t take a magnitude-8 quake to cut a wide swath of devastation through Nepal in late April of this year. A magnitude-7.8 earthquake rocked the Southern Asian country between the cities of Pokhara and Kathmandu and resulted in deaths in Nepal as well as in neighboring countries India. China and Bangladesh. A major aftershock registering a magnitude-7.3 hit the same region a few weeks later, killing dozens and injuring thousands. By mid-May, the official death toll from both quakes surpassed 8,500 people and the disaster became the deadliest earthquake to ever strike the country of Nepal.

The Nepal quake isn’t even the only one of the same magnitude to hit the globe this year. At the end of May, a magnitude-7.8 quake sent shockwaves through the island country of Japan. Luckily, the epicenter was located more than 600 miles south of Tokyo in the very remote collection of islands known as the Bonin, or Ogasawara, Islands. There were no reported deaths from this latest event but the damage wrecked by the 2011 magnitude-9 quake, which claimed more than 15,000 lives and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, is still a stunning reminder of what an earthquake can cause.

Science has found it difficult to answer the many risks of harm to body and property which earthquakes cause. Technologies meant to enable the prediction of earthquakes have not worked out in the past and researchers are still unable to predict the location and magnitude of the next big quake. In the meantime, there has been plenty of research and development leading to the creation of tools and techniques that have saved lives from the incredible destruction of a violent shift in fault lines.

 

Predicting and Preventing Damage to Home and Self

People are going to continue living in areas that may be affected from time to time by earthquakes, even tragic ones. It was reported in April of this year by TIME that 143 million Americans, nearly half of the country’s population, live with the risk of experiencing an earthquake. About 28 million citizens live in regions which may experience “strong shaking,” according to a report jointly published by the USGS, FEMA and the California Geological Survey.

Improvements in building design are being sought to improve the stability of structures so that they can survive large tremors without falling apart into dangerous rubble. Research conducted at Imperial College London, which offers a degree in earthquake engineering, has led to the development of a structural connection for buildings which is fitted at points throughout a building’s framework to capture shockwave energy and help it to dissipate safely. The unit is replaceable, making it simpler to refortify a structure after a tremor has hit. The use of rubber bearings in a building’s foundation to isolate it from the ground, separating it from the tremors felt during an earthquake, has also been suggested as a useful technique for preventing damage to structures.

Today, there is no reliable system that can provide enough advance warning of a coming earthquake in time to order an evacuation. However, even a few seconds of advanced warning is enough time to seek out a safe space, stop a vehicle or turn off a gas appliance. The USGS is working on creating an earthquake early warning system which is being tested in California under the name ShakeAlert. The system uses a series of sensors positioned at intervals of six to twelve miles to send an instantaneous warning when a quake begins, potentially giving residents of urban areas seconds to minutes of response time.

Another NASA technology may be able to help improve long-term prediction of quakes someday in the future. An imaging technology pioneered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and first utilized in 2009 is enabling long-term earthquake fault study like no system before. The radar-based mapping technology uses airborne pictures to create interferograms, which depict the size of motions which have occurred over a period of time underneath the ground. It will take years of study to understand these motion patterns and how they might correspond to the next big quake, but this is a major step forward in the ability to map fault systems. Researchers hope that the technology will be able to improve hazard map outlooks from 30 years to somewhere between five and ten years.

 

Heartbeat Sensors and Robots Aid in Search and Rescue

Many earthquake casualties could be prevented with more accurate systems for locating survivors trapped under thousands of pounds of collapsed rubble. Nepal proved to be a useful testing ground for one sensing technology developed by NASA which can detect a heartbeat through up to 30 feet of rubble, or 20 feet of solid concrete. The system, called Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) and developed in concert with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, was first developed to detect other planets but is credited with saving lives in at least one village heavily affected by the Nepal quake.

Robots used for search and rescue operations in the unstable environment created by an earthquake’s rubble are also getting a boost thanks to a technology originally made for the video gaming industry. Engineers from the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, have invented a mobile robot capable of detecting motion of survivors through the use of the Microsoft Kinect system made for the Xbox video gaming console. The team of developers estimate that they’ve saved about £2,000, or just over $3,000 USD, per robot by using the Kinect motion sensor system rather than similar technologies. The unit is designed for precarious landscapes which may be too dangerous for rescuers or rescue dogs.

Social media apps have been able to lend some much needed peace of mind to those worried about loved ones or friends in areas affected by an earthquake. Both Facebook and Google have developed tools designed to help users quickly learn that their contacts are in a safe place. Facebook’s Safety Check identifies which contacts are safe and which are yet unaccounted for, while Google’s Person Finder operates as a missing person database.

 

Keeping the Lights On When the Grid is Off

Earthquakes do just as good a job of severing utility lines as they do in making a building crumble to its foundations. A magnitude-6.0 quake striking American Canyon, CA, in August 2014 knocked out the electrical power for about 69,000 residents across California’s Napa Valley and beyond. Even when there are no fatalities, this can pose a serious problem to home and business owners in affected areas.

One energy solution inspired by the electrical grid problems caused by earthquakes is being developed by Nissan. The company recently released a two-way charger that turns the typical electrical vehicle charging scheme on its head. The charger would enable a fully charged Nissan vehicle to keep a typical Japanese home powered for two days. Power shortages caused by the 2011 Japanese earthquake have inspired a push towards developing answers for tenuous situations involving electrical grids ravaged by disaster.

Here on IPWatchdog, we’ve discussed a new wave in home energy solutions being offered by the Tesla Powerwall home battery. The Powerwall has a much more practical purpose as a means for cutting energy costs for homeowners who are able to store solar energy or electricity drawn from the power grid during hours of low demand. Given the Nissan development above, however, it’s pretty clear that a working home battery of any sort could be useful for keeping the lights on in a building situated near a fault.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

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