November 16, 2004

Earthquake Shakes Cornell

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At 9:30 a.m. yesterday, an earthquake struck the Cornell campus, no thanks to Mother Nature.

This earthquake was created by a team of scientists and professors that, through funding from the National Science Foundation, had established one of 15 Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation sites in the United States. The NEES model allows scientists to study the effects of seismic force on different types of lifelines in earthquake conditions.

NEES has established world-class research facilities across the United States that give researchers the tools to study how earthquakes and tsunamis impact buildings, utility systems, bridges and lifelines. In addition, all fifteen sites are networked and, through high-speed internet connectivity, are able to share results and work together to study different situations and effects.

“This is not just a Cornell facility,” stated Prof. Harry Stewart, civil and environmental engineering, the director of the facility, in a press release. “We are part of a national network. So we need to keep the doors open for anyone who comes in with funding and a new idea for using the unique features of this laboratory,”

For example, Cornell’s facility is working with the geotechnical centrifuge site at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and through online web broadcasting of experiments and internet connectivity, the two sites can communicate freely and share results. This not only strengthens the studies done by each site, but can also lead to exploring and conducting new experiments by possibly combining components discovered at different institutions.

Cornell’s Large Displacement Facility, located in Thurston Hall, is a rectangular prism filled with dirt, enclosed on three sides. A pipe is submerged in the middle of the dirt and when the earthquake-like force is applied to the box, the pipe emerges from the dirt in a curved shape. The height, curvature, and amount of dirt displacement are measured and studied in attempt to improve the design and performance of civil and environmental infrastructure systems when under seismic pressure.

Many researchers and distinguished scholars gathered at the testing site for the inaugural earthquake trial. President Jeffrey S. Lehman `77 explained that this NEES model will “define our university as one of the key facilities in calculating effects on structures throughout the world.”

Cornell is a pioneer in this revolutionary type of research and exploration as there are only fifteen other NEES sites throughout the country. Of these fifteen sites, Cornell is one of six large-scale laboratories for studying and measuring earthquakes.

“We’ll do full-scale tests here which are time-consuming and relatively expensive to perform,” stated Stewart.

By using the experiment results to create stronger materials and infrastructures that can withstand these natural disasters, public safety will increase immensely. These tests are being applied to a variety of lifelines, ranging from gas pipes to water lines. By strengthening their composition, the structure of future bridges and buildings can be designed to be able to withstand tumultuous forces received by earthquakes.

Archived article by Carl Menzel
Sun Staff Writer