EARTHQUAKESCracking the Secrets to Earthquake Safety, One Shake Simulation at a Time

Published 2 November 2022

A new experimental capability, designed to replicate realistic earthquakes in the laboratory, paired with the world’s fastest supercomputers, will help lead to resilient buildings and infrastructure across the U.S.

To make sure our buildings and infrastructure are earthquake-safe, we must understand how seismic activity affects different structures. Miniature models and historical observations are helpful, but they only scratch the surface of understanding and quantifying a geological event as powerful and far-reaching as a major earthquake.

Two major research efforts funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) seek to fill in the gaps and provide resources for researchers and engineers to study earthquakes across scales, from the ininitiation of seismic waves at the fault rupture site deep underground, to the interactions between shaking soil and individual structures at the surface.

The first endeavor is an experimental facility for real-world studies on how the soil around a structure influences its performance during an earthquake. The ground beneath us may seem solid, but vibrations can quickly make it unstable. This is because soils are composed of complex layers of rock and mineral particles in varying sizes with varying levels of moisture that each respond differently to seismic activity. During an earthquake, the movements of buildings are dictated by site-specific interactions between these soil layers and the direction and strength of the vibrations. Now nearly complete after more than five years of design and construction, the Large-Scale Laminar Soil Box System will be the largest facility in the U.S. for studying these interactions, and comparable in size to the largest one in the world.

The facility is a collaboration between the University of Nevada, Reno (University) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab). It consists of a 350-ton capacity soil container mounted on a hydraulic base that can replicate shaking with up to one-and-a-quarter million pounds of force. The facility will open with a celebratory demonstration event at the University on September 15.

Studies conducted with the Soil Box System will provide data for the other effort, EQSIM: an ongoing collaboration between scientists at Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University to develop realistic, highly detailed earthquake simulations using DOE’s supercomputers.