12.4 The Impacts of Earthquakes

Some of the common impacts of earthquakes include structural damage to buildings, fires, damage to bridges and highways, initiation of slope failures, liquefaction, and tsunami. The types of impacts depend to a large degree on where the earthquake is located: whether it is predominantly urban or rural, densely or sparsely populated, highly developed or underdeveloped, and of course on the ability of the infrastructure to withstand shaking.

As we’ve seen from the example of the 1985 Mexico earthquake, the geological foundations on which structures are built can have a significant impact on earthquake shaking. When an earthquake happens, the seismic waves produced have a wide range of frequencies. The energy of the higher frequency waves tends to be absorbed by solid rock, while the lower frequency waves (with periods slower than one second) pass through the solid rock without being absorbed, but are eventually absorbed and amplified by soft sediments. It is therefore very common to see much worse earthquake damage in areas underlain by soft sediments than in areas of solid rock. A good example of this is in the Oakland area near San Francisco, where parts of a two-layer highway built on soft sediments collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (Figure 12.18).

Cypress Freeway

Figure 12.18 A part of the Cypress Freeway in Oakland California that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. [from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/ commons/9/91/Cypress_collapsed.jpg]

Building damage is also greatest in areas of soft sediments, and multi-storey buildings tend to be more seriously damaged than smaller ones. Buildings can be designed to withstand most earthquakes, and this practice is increasingly applied in earthquake-prone regions. Turkey is one such region, and even though Turkey had a relatively strong building code in the 1990s, adherence to the code was poor, as builders did whatever they could to save costs, including using inappropriate materials in concrete and reducing the amount of steel reinforcing. The result was that there were over 17,000 deaths in the 1999 M7.6 Izmit earthquake (Figure 12.19). After two devastating earthquakes that year, Turkish authorities strengthened the building code further, but the new code has been applied only in a few regions, and enforcement of the code is still weak, as revealed by the amount of damage from a M7.1 earthquake in eastern Turkey in 2011.

earthquake in the Izmit

Figure 12.19 Buildings damaged by the 1999 earthquake in the Izmit area, Turkey. [from U.S. Geological Survey at: http://gallery.usgs.gov/sets/1999_Izmit,_Turkey_Earthquake/thumb/_/1]

 Fires are commonly associated with earthquakes because fuel pipelines rupture and electrical lines are damaged when the ground shakes (Figure 12.20). Most of the damage in the great 1906 San Francisco earthquake was caused by massive fires in the downtown area of the city (Figure 12.21). Some 25,000 buildings were destroyed by those fires, which were fuelled by broken gas pipes. Fighting the fires was difficult because water mains had also ruptured. The risk of fires can be reduced through P-wave early warning systems if utility operators can reduce pipeline pressure and close electrical circuits.

Tohoku earthquake

Figure 12.20 Some of the effects of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in the Sendai area of Japan. An oil refinery is on fire, and a vast area has been flooded by a tsunami. [from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_T%C5%8Dhoku_earthquake_and_tsunami#/media/File:SH-60B_helicopter_flies_over_Sendai.jpg]


Fires in San Francisco

Figure 12.21 Fires in San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. [from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/San_francisco_fire_1906.jpg]

 Earthquakes are important triggers for failures on slopes that are already weak. An example is the Las Colinas slide in the city of Santa Tecla, El Salvador, which was triggered by a M7.6 offshore earthquake in January 2001 (Figure 12.22).

The Las Colinas debris

Figure 12.22 The Las Colinas debris flow at Santa Tecla (a suburb of the capital San Salvador) triggered by the January 2001 El Salvador earthquake. This is just one of many hundreds of slope failures that resulted from that earthquake. Over 500 people died in the area affected by this slide. [from: http://landslides.usgs.gov/learning/ images/foreign/ElSalvadorslide.jpg]

Ground shaking during an earthquake can be enough to weaken rock and unconsolidated materials to the point of failure, but in many cases the shaking also contributes to a process known as liquefaction, in which an otherwise solid body of sediment is transformed into a liquid mass that can flow. When water-saturated sediments are shaken, the grains become rearranged to the point where they are no longer supporting one another. Instead, the water between the grains is holding them apart and the material can flow. Liquefaction can lead to the collapse of buildings and other structures that might be otherwise undamaged. A good example is the collapse of apartment buildings during the 1964 Niigata earthquake (M7.6) in Japan (Figure 12.23). Liquefaction can also contribute to slope failures and to fountains of sandy mud (sand volcanoes) in areas where there is loose saturated sand beneath a layer of more cohesive clay.


Figure 12.23 Collapsed apartment buildings in the Niigata area of Japan. The material beneath the buildings was liquefied to varying degrees by the 1964 earthquake. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_ Niigata_earthquake#/media/File: Liquefaction_at_Niigata.JPG

Parts of the Fraser River delta are prone to liquefaction-related damage because the region is characterized by a 2 m to 3 m thick layer of fluvial silt and clay over top of at least 10 m of water-saturated fluvial sand (Figure 12.24). Under these conditions, it can be expected that seismic shaking will be amplified and, the sandy sediments will liquefy. This could lead to subsidence and tilting of buildings, and to failure and sliding of the silt and clay layer. Current building-code regulations in the Fraser delta area require that measures be taken to strengthen the ground underneath multi-story buildings prior to construction.

unconsolidated sedimentary layers

Figure 12.24 Recent unconsolidated sedimentary layers in the Fraser River delta area (top) and the potential consequences in the event of a damaging earthquake. [Steven Earle CC-BY 4.0]

Exercise 12.4 Creating Liquefaction and Discovering Harmonic Frequency

There are a few ways that you can demonstrate the process of liquefaction for yourself. The simplest is to go to a sandy beach (lake, ocean, or river) and find a place near the water’s edge where the sand is wet. This is best done with your shoes off, so let’s hope it’s not too cold! While standing in one place on a wet part of the beach, start moving your feet up and down at a frequency of about once per second. Within a few seconds the previously firm sand will start to lose strength, and you’ll gradually sink in up to your ankles.

If you can’t get to a beach, or if the weather isn’t cooperating, put some sand (sandbox sand will do) into a small container, saturate it with water, and then pour the excess water off. You can shake it gently to get the water to separate and then pour the excess water away, and you may have to do that more than once. Place a small rock on the surface of the sand; it should sit there for hours without sinking in. Now, holding the container in one hand gently thump the side or the bottom with your other hand, about twice a second. The rock should gradually sink in as the sand around it becomes liquefied.

As you were moving your feet up and down or thumping the pot, it’s likely that you soon discovered the most effective rate for getting the sand to liquefy; this would have been close to the natural harmonic frequency for that body of material. Stepping up and down as fast as you can (several times per second) on the wet beach would not have been effective, nor would you have achieved much by stepping once every several seconds. The body of sand vibrates most readily in response to shaking that is close to its natural harmonic frequency, and liquefaction is also most likely to occur at that frequency.

Earthquakes that take place beneath the ocean have the potential to generate tsunami.[1] The most likely situation for a significant tsunami is a large (M7 or greater) subduction-related earthquake. As shown in Figure 12.25, during the time between earthquakes the overriding plate becomes distorted by elastic deformation; it is squeezed laterally (Figure 12.25B) and pushed up.

When an earthquake happens (Figure 12.25C), the plate rebounds and there is both uplift and subsidence on the sea floor, in some cases by as much as several metres vertically over an area of thousands of square kilometres. This vertical motion is transmitted through the water column where it generates a wave that then spreads across the ocean.

Elastic deformation

Figure 12.25 Elastic deformation and rebound of overriding plate at a subduction setting (B). The release of the locked zone during an earthquake (C) results in both uplift and subsidence on the sea floor, and this is transmitted to the water overhead, resulting in a tsunami. [Steven Earle CC-BY 4.0]

Subduction earthquakes with magnitude less than 7 do not typically generate significant tsunami because the amount of vertical displacement of the sea floor is minimal. Sea-floor transform earthquakes, even large ones (M7 to M8), don’t typically generate tsunami either, because the motion is mostly side to side, not vertical.

Tsunami waves travel at velocities of several hundred kilometres per hour and easily make it to the far side of an ocean in about the same time as a passenger jet. The simulated one shown in Figure 12.26 is similar to that created by the 1700 Cascadia earthquake off the coast of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, which was recorded in Japan nine hours later.


Figure 12.26 Model of the tsunami from the 1700 Cascadia earthquake (~M9) showing open-ocean wave heights (colours) and travel time contours. Tsunami wave amplitudes typically increase in shallow water. [from NOAA/PMEL/Center for Tsunami Research, at: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/cascadia_simulated/]


  1. Tsunami is the Japanese word for harbour wave. It is the same in both singular and plural.

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