Seismic hazard

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A seismic hazard is the probability that an earthquake will occur in a given geographic area, within a given window of time, and with ground motion intensity exceeding a given threshold. [1] With a hazard thus estimated, risk can be assessed and included in such areas as building codes for standard buildings, designing larger buildings and infrastructure projects, land use planning and determining insurance rates. The seismic hazard studies also may generate two standard measures of anticipated ground motion, both confusingly abbreviated MCE; the simpler probabilistic Maximum Considered Earthquake (or Event [2] ), used in standard building codes, and the more detailed and deterministic Maximum Credible Earthquake incorporated in the design of larger buildings and civil infrastructure like dams or bridges. It is important to clarify which MCE is being discussed. [3]

Earthquake Shaking of the surface of the earth caused by a sudden release of energy in the crust

An earthquake is the shaking of the surface of the Earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth's lithosphere that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes can range in size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to toss people around and destroy whole cities. The seismicity, or seismic activity, of an area is the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. The word tremor is also used for non-earthquake seismic rumbling.

Seismic risk refers to the risk of damage from earthquake to a building, system, or other entity. Seismic risk has been defined, for most management purposes, as the potential economic, social and environmental consequences of hazardous events that may occur in a specified period of time. A building located in a region of high seismic hazard is at lower risk if it is built to sound seismic engineering principles. On the other hand, a building located in a region with a history of minor seismicity, in a brick building located on fill subject to liquifaction can be as high or higher risk.

Building code set of rules that specify the standards for constructed objects such as buildings and nonbuilding structures

A building code is a set of rules that specify the standards for constructed objects such as buildings and nonbuilding structures. Buildings must conform to the code to obtain planning permission, usually from a local council. The main purpose of building codes is to protect public health, safety and general welfare as they relate to the construction and occupancy of buildings and structures. The building code becomes law of a particular jurisdiction when formally enacted by the appropriate governmental or private authority.


Surface motion map for a hypothetical earthquake on the northern portion of the Hayward Fault Zone and its presumed northern extension, the Rodgers Creek Fault Zone RogersCrkNorthHayward.gif
Surface motion map for a hypothetical earthquake on the northern portion of the Hayward Fault Zone and its presumed northern extension, the Rodgers Creek Fault Zone

Calculations for determining seismic hazard were first formulated by C. Allin Cornell in 1968 [4] and, depending on their level of importance and use, can be quite complex. [5] The regional geology and seismology setting is first examined for sources and patterns of earthquake occurrence, both in depth and at the surface from seismometer records; secondly, the impacts from these sources are assessed relative to local geologic rock and soil types, slope angle and groundwater conditions. Zones of similar potential earthquake shaking are thus determined and drawn on maps. The well known San Andreas Fault is illustrated as a long narrow elliptical zone of greater potential motion, like many areas along continental margins associated with the Pacific ring of fire. Zones of higher seismicity in the continental interior may be the site for intraplate earthquakes) and tend to be drawn as broad areas, based on historic records, like the 1812 New Madrid earthquake, since specific causative faults are generally not identified as earthquake sources.

C. Allin Cornell American engineer

C. (Carl) Allin Cornell was a civil engineer, a researcher, and a professor who made important contributions to reliability theory and earthquake engineering and, along with Dr. Luis Esteva, developed the field of Probabilistic Seismic Hazard Analysis in 1968.

Hypocenter site of an earthquake or a nuclear explosion

A hypocenter is the point of origin of an earthquake or a subsurface nuclear explosion. In seismology, it is a synonym of the focus. The term hypocenter is also used as a synonym for ground zero, the surface point directly beneath a nuclear airburst.

The epicenter, epicentre or epicentrum in seismology is the point on the Earth's surface directly above a hypocenter or focus, the point where an earthquake or an underground explosion originates.

Each zone is given properties associated with source potential: how many earthquakes per year, the maximum size of earthquakes (maximum magnitude), etc. Finally, the calculations require formulae that give the required hazard indicators for a given earthquake size and distance. For example, some districts prefer to use peak acceleration, others use peak velocity, and more sophisticated uses require response spectral ordinates.

Maximum magnitude

An important parameter in the calculation of seismic hazard, maximum magnitude is also one of the more contentious. The choice of the value can greatly influence the final outcome of the results, yet this is most likely a size of earthquake that has not yet occurred in the region under study.

Peak ground acceleration (PGA) is equal to the maximum ground acceleration that occurred during earthquake shaking at a location. PGA is equal to the amplitude of the largest absolute acceleration recorded on an accelerogram at a site during a particular earthquake. Earthquake shaking generally occurs in all three directions. Therefore, PGA is often split into the horizontal and vertical components. Horizontal PGAs are generally larger than those in the vertical direction but this is not always true, especially close to large earthquakes. PGA is an important parameter for earthquake engineering, The design basis earthquake ground motion (DBEGM) is often defined in terms of PGA.

The computer program then integrates over all the zones and produces probability curves for the key ground motion parameter. The final result gives a 'chance' of exceeding a given value over a specified amount of time. Standard building codes for homeowners might be concerned with a 1 in 500 years chance, while nuclear plants look at the 10,000 year time frame. A longer-term seismic history can be obtained through paleoseismology. The results may be in the form of a ground response spectrum for use in seismic analysis.

Paleoseismology The study of earthquakes that happened in the past

Paleoseismology looks at geologic sediments and rocks, for signs of ancient earthquakes. It is used to supplement seismic monitoring, for the calculation of seismic hazard. Paleoseismology is usually restricted to geologic regimes that have undergone continuous sediment creation for the last few thousand years, such as swamps, lakes, river beds and shorelines.

Response spectrum

A response spectrum is a plot of the peak or steady-state response of a series of oscillators of varying natural frequency, that are forced into motion by the same base vibration or shock. The resulting plot can then be used to pick off the response of any linear system, given its natural frequency of oscillation. One such use is in assessing the peak response of buildings to earthquakes. The science of strong ground motion may use some values from the ground response spectrum for correlation with seismic damage.

Seismic analysis Analysis of the response of a building or nonbuildung structure to earthquakes.

Seismic analysis is a subset of structural analysis and is the calculation of the response of a building structure to earthquakes. It is part of the process of structural design, earthquake engineering or structural assessment and retrofit in regions where earthquakes are prevalent.

More elaborate variations on the theme also look at the soil conditions. [6] Higher ground motions are likely to be experienced on a soft swamp compared to a hard rock site. The standard seismic hazard calculations become adjusted upwards when postulating characteristic earthquakes. Areas with high ground motion due to soil conditions are also often subject to soil failure due to liquefaction. Soil failure can also occur due to earthquake-induced landslides in steep terrain. Large area landsliding can also occur on rather gentle slopes as was seen in the Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, March 28, 1964.

Soil liquefaction

Soil liquefaction occurs when a saturated or partially saturated soil substantially loses strength and stiffness in response to an applied stress such as shaking during an earthquake or other sudden change in stress condition, in which material that is ordinarily a solid behaves like a liquid.

Anchorage, Alaska Consolidated city-borough in Alaska, United States

Anchorage is a unified home rule municipality in the U.S. state of Alaska, on the West Coast of the United States. With an estimated 291,538 residents in 2018, it is Alaska's most populous city and contains more than 40% of the state's population; among the 50 states, only New York has a higher percentage of residents who live in its most populous city. The Anchorage metropolitan area, which includes Anchorage and the neighboring Matanuska-Susitna Borough, had a population of 399,148 in 2018, accounting for more than half the state's population. At 1,706 square miles (4,420 km2) of land area, the city is the fourth-largest by area in the United States and larger than the smallest state, Rhode Island, which has 1,212 square miles (3,140 km2).


In a normal seismic hazard analyses intended for the public, that of a "maximum considered earthquake", or "maximum considered event" (MCE) for a specific area, is an earthquake that is expected to occur once in approximately 2,500 years; that is, it has a 2-percent probability of being exceeded in 50 years. The term is used specifically for general building codes, which people commonly occupy; building codes in many localities will require non-essential buildings to be designed for "collapse prevention" in an MCE, so that the building remains standing - allowing for safety and escape of occupants - rather than full structural survival of the building.

A far more detailed and stringent MCE stands for "maximum credible earthquake", [7] [8] which is used in designing for skyscrapers and larger civil infrastructure, like dams, where structural failure could lead to other catastrophic consequences. These MCEs might require determining more than one specific earthquake event, depending on the variety of structures included. [9]

US seismic hazard maps

Map of peak ground acceleration with 2% probability of exceedance in 50 years 2014 pga2pct50yrs (vector).svg
Map of peak ground acceleration with 2% probability of exceedance in 50 years

Some maps released by the USGS are shown with peak ground acceleration with a 10% probability of exceedance in 50 years, measured in Metre per second squared. For parts of the US, the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project in 2008 resulted in seismic hazard maps showing peak acceleration (as a percentage of gravity) with a 2% probability of exceedance in 50 years.

Temblor, a company founded in 2014, offers a seismic hazard rank for the all of the conterminous US. This service is free and ad-free for the public. The hazard rank "is made for the likelihood of experiencing strong shaking (0.4g peak ground acceleration) in 30 years, based on the 2014 USGS NSHMP hazard model." [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

The Modified Mercalli intensity scale, descended from Giuseppe Mercalli's Mercalli intensity scale of 1902, is a seismic intensity scale used for measuring the intensity of shaking produced by an earthquake. It measures the effects of an earthquake at a given location, distinguished from the earthquake's inherent force or strength as measured by seismic magnitude scales. While shaking is driven by the seismic energy released by an earthquake, earthquakes differ in how much of their energy is radiated as seismic waves. Deeper earthquakes also have less interaction with the surface, and their energy is spread out across a larger area. Shaking intensity is localized, generally diminishing with distance from the earthquake's epicenter, but can be amplified in sedimentary basins and certain kinds of unconsolidated soils.

1971 San Fernando earthquake earthquake

The 1971 San Fernando earthquake occurred in the early morning of February 9 in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California. The unanticipated thrust earthquake had a magnitude of 6.5 on the Ms scale, and a maximum Mercalli intensity of XI (Extreme). The event was one in a series that affected the Los Angeles area in the late 20th century. Damage was locally severe in the northern San Fernando Valley and surface faulting was extensive to the south of the epicenter in the mountains, as well as urban settings along city streets and neighborhoods. Uplift and other effects affected private homes and businesses.

Seismic retrofit Modification of existing structures to make them more resistant to seismic activity

Seismic retrofitting is the modification of existing structures to make them more resistant to seismic activity, ground motion, or soil failure due to earthquakes. With better understanding of seismic demand on structures and with our recent experiences with large earthquakes near urban centers, the need of seismic retrofitting is well acknowledged. Prior to the introduction of modern seismic codes in the late 1960s for developed countries and late 1970s for many other parts of the world, many structures were designed without adequate detailing and reinforcement for seismic protection. In view of the imminent problem, various research work has been carried out. State-of-the-art technical guidelines for seismic assessment, retrofit and rehabilitation have been published around the world – such as the ASCE-SEI 41 and the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering (NZSEE)'s guidelines. These codes must be regularly updated; the 1994 Northridge earthquake brought to light the brittleness of welded steel frames, for example.

An accelerograph can be referred to as a strong-motion instrument or seismograph, or simply an earthquake accelerometer. They are usually constructed as a self-contained box, which previously included a paper or film recorder but now they often record directly on digital media and then the data is transmitted via the Internet.

Strong ground motion

In seismology, strong ground motion is the strong earthquake shaking that occurs close to a causative fault. The strength of the shaking involved in strong ground motion usually overwhelms a seismometer, forcing the use of accelerographs for recording. The science of strong ground motion also deals with the variations of fault rupture, both in total displacement, energy released, and rupture velocity.

Earthquake engineering interdisciplinary branch of engineering

Earthquake engineering is an interdisciplinary branch of engineering that designs and analyzes structures, such as buildings and bridges, with earthquakes in mind. Its overall goal is to make such structures more resistant to earthquakes. An earthquake engineer aims to construct structures that will not be damaged in minor shaking and will avoid serious damage or collapse in a major earthquake. Earthquake engineering is the scientific field concerned with protecting society, the natural environment, and the man-made environment from earthquakes by limiting the seismic risk to socio-economically acceptable levels. Traditionally, it has been narrowly defined as the study of the behavior of structures and geo-structures subject to seismic loading; it is considered as a subset of structural engineering, geotechnical engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, applied physics, etc. However, the tremendous costs experienced in recent earthquakes have led to an expansion of its scope to encompass disciplines from the wider field of civil engineering, mechanical engineering, nuclear engineering, and from the social sciences, especially sociology, political science, economics, and finance.

Earthquake zones of India

The Indian subcontinent has a history of devastating earthquakes. The major reason for the high frequency and intensity of the earthquakes is that the Indian plate is driving into Asia at a rate of approximately 47 mm/year. Geographical statistics of India show that almost 54% of the land is vulnerable to earthquakes. A World Bank and United Nations report shows estimates that around 200 million city dwellers in India will be exposed to storms and earthquakes by 2050. The latest version of seismic zoning map of India given in the earthquake resistant design code of India [IS 1893 2002] assigns four levels of seismicity for India in terms of zone factors. In other words, the earthquake zoning map of India divides India into 4 seismic zones unlike its previous version, which consisted of five or six zones for the country. According to the present zoning map, Zone 5 expects the highest level of seismicity whereas Zone 2 is associated with the lowest level of seismicity.

Earthquake scenario

Earthquake scenario is a planning tool to determine the appropriate emergency responses or building systems in areas exposed to earthquake hazards. It uses the basics of seismic hazard studies, but usually places a set earthquake on a specific fault, most likely near a high-population area. Most scenarios relate directly to urban seismic risk, and seismic risk in general.

1993 Scotts Mills earthquake

The 1993 Scotts Mills earthquake, also known as the "Spring break quake", occurred in the U.S. state of Oregon on March 25 at 5:34 AM Pacific Standard Time. With a moment magnitude of 5.6 and a maximum perceived intensity of VII on the Mercalli intensity scale, it was the largest earthquake in the Pacific Northwest since the Elk Lake and Goat Rocks earthquakes of 1981. Ground motion was widely felt in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the Portland metropolitan area, and as far north as the Puget Sound area near Seattle, Washington.

Seismic microzonation

Seismic microzonation is defined as the process of subdividing a potential seismic or earthquake prone area into zones with respect to some geological and geophysical characteristics of the sites such as ground shaking, liquefaction susceptibility, landslide and rock fall hazard, earthquake-related flooding, so that seismic hazards at different locations within the area can correctly be identified. Microzonation provides the basis for site-specific risk analysis, which can assist in the mitigation of earthquake damage. In most general terms, seismic microzonation is the process of estimating the response of soil layers under earthquake excitations and thus the variation of earthquake characteristics on the ground surface.

Most of the civil engineering structures involve some type of structural element with direct contact with ground. When the external forces, such as earthquakes, act on these systems, neither the structural displacements nor the ground displacements, are independent of each other. The process in which the response of the soil influences the motion of the structure and the motion of the structure influences the response of the soil is termed as soil-structure interaction (SSI).

Global Earthquake Model

The Global Earthquake Model (GEM) is a public–private partnership initiated in 2006 by the Global Science Forum of the OECD to develop global, open-source risk assessment software and tools. With committed backing from academia, governments and industry, GEM contributes to achieving profound, lasting reductions in earthquake risk worldwide by following the priorities of the Hyogo Framework for Action. From 2009 to 2013 GEM is constructing its first working global earthquake model and will provide an authoritative standard for calculating and communicating earthquake risk worldwide.

Spectral acceleration

Spectral acceleration (SA) is a unit measured in g that describes the maximum acceleration in an earthquake on an object – specifically a damped, harmonic oscillator moving in one physical dimension. This can be measured at different oscillation frequencies and with different degrees of damping, although 5% damping is commonly applied. The SA at different frequencies may be plotted to form a response spectrum.

Incremental dynamic analysis (IDA) is a computational analysis method of earthquake engineering for performing a comprehensive assessment of the behavior of structures under seismic loads. It has been developed to build upon the results of probabilistic seismic hazard analysis in order to estimate the seismic risk faced by a given structure. It can be considered to be the dynamic equivalent of the static pushover analysis.

1980 Eureka earthquake

The 1980 Eureka earthquake occurred on November 8 at 02:27:34 local time along the northern coastal area of California in the United States. With a moment magnitude of 7.3 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of VII, this strike-slip earthquake was the largest to occur in California in 28 years. Although damage was considered light, several loss estimates equaled or exceeded $2 million, and six injuries resulted when two vehicles came down with the partial collapse of a highway overpass on US 101 in Fields Landing. The north coast of California experiences frequent plate boundary earthquakes near the Mendocino Triple Junction and intraplate events also occur within the Gorda Plate.

Contained earth Earthbag construction material and method

Contained earth (CE) is a structurally designed natural building material that combines containment, inexpensive reinforcement, and strongly cohesive earthen walls. CE is earthbag construction that can be calibrated for several seismic risk levels based on building soil strength and plan standards for adequate bracing.


  1. Natural Resources Canada page on Seismic Hazard Calculations Archived 2008-06-02 at the Wayback Machine
  2. Craig Taylor and Erik VanMarcke, ed. (2002). Acceptable Risk Processes: Lifeline and Natural Hazards. Reston, VA: ASCE, TCLEE. ISBN   9780784406236.
  3. [ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-30. Retrieved 2011-10-06.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Earthquake Definitions, Oregon State University
  4. Cornell, C.A. 1968, Engineering seismic risk analysis, Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 58, 1583-1606
  5. McGuire, R. 2008, Probabilistic seismic hazard analysis: Early history, Earthquake Engng Struct. Dyn., 37, 329–338 Archived 2009-02-27 at the Wayback Machine
  6. Wang, Z. 2008. A technical note on seismic microzonation in the central United States, J. Earth Syst. Sci. 117, S2, pp. 749–756
  7. Earthquake Design and Evaluation for civil Works Projects Engineering and Design, Department of the Army, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Regulation No. 1110-2-1806, 31 July 1995
  8. Maximum credible earthquake, United States Bureau of Reclamation
  9. Maximum design earthquake
  10. "Temblor website". Temblor, Inc.