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Earthquake Damage is Intensifying with Climate Change. How Must Structural Engineering Adjust?

By: , Posted on: April 11, 2017

Damage in outskirts of Kathmandu valley following the Gorkha earthquake

On the surface, it may seem that earthquakes have nothing to do with climate change and environmental degradation. However, cascaded hazards triggered by seismic activity, such as avalanches, landslides, mud slides and rock falls account for a considerable amount of structural damage resulting from earthquakes, and are worsening with climate change.

This was particularly noted during the Gorkha earthquake of April 2015 and its aftershocks. The Gorkha earthquake in Nepal damaged a quarter of a million residential buildings in central Nepal. Most of these buildings were stone and brick masonry constructions. Stone buildings are undeniably sustainable, but are they resilient enough? The avalanche in Langtang, the rock falls in Tatopani, and hundreds of other landslides triggered serious damage apart from the seismic shaking.

Are structural research and engineers neglecting climate responsiveness and focusing solely on structural robustness? Of course not! Recent advances in structural engineering using ‘Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)’ have underscored the need for environmentally sensitive structural engineering practices. The cradle-to-grave’ concept benchmarks a paradigm shift in structural engineering.

The foundation of structural engineering is nature itself. Let’s envisage nature as its own seismic region; excitation in nature resulting from disruptions may result in rocking or sliding. One could even make an analogy between nature and building itself: orderly mechanisms makes both ductile, a concept most structural engineers ponder throughout their lives.

Sustainable construction and climate awareness can lead to green construction strategies and establish adequate structural capacity to face possible disasters, which is what structural engineering communities worldwide are brainstorming on.

In terms of reconstruction following seismic events, reusing and recycling materials from rubble could be a strategy in the future so as not to further disrupt the environment. Environmental and climate literacy has become a must for structural engineers worldwide. We must rethink conventional ‘quarry out-process-use’ concepts.

And what about structural engineering’s future? Are skyscrapers, high-rise reinforced concrete, and low-to-medium rise reinforced concrete the only option? Clearly, the answer is no; the future goes beyond such structures.

From the symmetrically constructed aseismic middle mountain Ghumaune dhi: to igloos, structural engineering has a future beyond contemporary urban buildings.. Such climate responsive, environmentally-friendly structures built with the least-possible encroachment on nature can complement the modern city’s demands for skyscrapers and high rise steel, reinforced concrete or timber structures.

[Left]: ~30 year old building suffered partial collapse whereas the neighboring ~150 years old ‘Ghumaune dhi:’[Right] remained unaffected during Gorkha earthquake

How can structural engineers accommodate the variety of concerns: resilience, sustainability, and environmental protection?

Akin to public perceptions, answers may differ, depending on various priorities. For a structural engineer, safety and structural soundness takes the highest priority, while ensuring sustainability may take a back seat. . To this end, some guidelines exist.

However, while the priorities are based on heuristic approaches, the argument that climate change and environmental degradations increase the earthquake damage is undeniable. A structural engineer must consider the environmental impacts and damages to ecosystem and implement possible countermeasures.

Considering roader perspectives like multi-hazard analysis, and finding solutions on a local scale makes it easier to deal with the localized nature of damage during earthquakes.

Heritage and monuments suffer irreparable losses due to earthquakes. Apart from this, such delicate structures are already negatively impacted by climate change, which introduces yet another challenge for structural engineers.

Climate change effects in developing countries like Nepal are worse than that of other developed nations. The multidimensional outcomes also encapsulate a construction industry that may soon be threatened due to the lack of certain construction materials.

Researchers, academicians, and practicing structural engineers have a common goal of ‘resilience, environmentally friendliness, and sustainability (RES)’, from curricula to codes, laboratories to symposia and in-situ construction to design studios. Idea exchange, learning from in-situ experiences, technology transfer, and success/failure stories are common across the globe, but need broader collaboration to learn from experience and find future solutions.

The same concept is replicated in the upcoming book, Impacts and Insights of Gorkha Earthquake in Nepal, which considers disaster risk reduction as the focal point.

Dipendra Gautam is with the Structural and Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, Kathmandu and Hugo Rodrigues is a Senior Lecturer at the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, Portugal

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