3Qs: Assessing the effects of Japan’s earthquake

On Friday, a mas­sive 8.9-magnitude earth­quake struck off Japan’s north­east coast, leading to wide­spread destruc­tion and thou­sands of deaths. It was one of the world’s largest quakes of the last cen­tury. Jerome Hajjar, chair of the Depart­ment of Civil and Envi­ron­mental Engi­neering, studies earth­quakes as a struc­tural engi­neer. He trav­eled to Japan in 2009 to test his new struc­tural system that helps build­ings with­stand large earth­quakes. Hajjar assesses the impact of this quake and the field of earth­quake engineering.

How prepared was Japan to handle this earthquake?

Japan is well-known for having some of the world’s best earthquake engineers, and its government is dedicated to improving infrastructure to be resilient to earthquakes. However, like the United States, many older structures haven’t yet been retrofitted, so there are certainly significant exposures.

Japan is also one of the most seismically vulnerable regions in the world. It’s still very difficult to completely understand earthquakes, and it’s not possible yet to predict them with any reasonable accuracy. I talked to my colleagues in Japan, and two of them in Tokyo independently said this is by far the strongest shake they’ve ever felt — and they were 230 miles away from the epicenter.

Are other areas around the world similarly at risk?

Absolutely. Let’s start with California. One of the reasons why the U.S.-Japan cooperative research relationship has extended since the Kennedy administration is because we share the same exposure, particularly on our West Coast. We had 50 to 100 years of building infrastructure in the region prior to earthquake-engineering knowledge really accelerating. Istanbul is a complex city with strong, modern engineering, and yet some significant exposures. Countries such as China, New Zealand and Chile also have high earthquake risks.

The U.S. and Japan both have very good construction and inspection industries. Other parts of the world have good engineering, but construction practices often lag.

What are the greatest challenges to preparing for an earthquake, and rebuilding afterward?

One of the most difficult aspects of building resilient communities and cities is how heterogeneous they are. Government buildings are subject to different regulations than, say, private buildings, or oil and gas pipelines, and risk management can be difficult to coordinate. Preparing a city to withstand an earthquake is a challenge that crosses many disciplines — including social science, public policy, business, economics and engineering.

Recovering from an earthquake presents its own challenges. How prepared is a region with emergency housing and emergency food supplies? Ultimately, the problem comes down to this: Countries such as Japan and the United States primarily focus on economic growth and wealth creation, not preservation. It’s much easier to think about creating whole new businesses than it is to prepare for an event that happens once every 500 years. That challenge trickles through the entire process of making a community resilient. But if we make this an interdisciplinary discussion, we can make progress.

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