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Groovy Earthquake Proof Skyscrapers

 Groovy Earthquake Proof Skyscrapers

“An earthquake is such fun when it is over.” – George Orwell

A long time ago, our ancestors believed earthquakes to be the act of the Gods. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, was the first to realise that earthquakes were more than an act of the Gods. To this day, STEMists continue to tame the devastating effects earthquakes have on human lives, buildings, roads, and power supplies.

How do people build structures that resist earthquake damage? Well, in the past it wasn’t really possible. The building materials available were limited to stone, brick, wood, thatch – none of them good for surviving earthquakes or high winds. Modern skyscrapers are made possible by modern building materials, especially steel.

What is steel?

Steel is iron mixed with other substances and/or given special treatments.  Carbon steel is iron mixed with carbon.  Depending on the amounts of each element, carbon steel can be brittle and hard like cast iron (e.g. a skillet) or soft and workable like wrought iron (think of a groovy iron gate.)

Wrought Iron Gate

Groovy Wrought Iron Gate

Alloy steel is iron mixed with other metals such as chromium, nickel, or vanadium.  The metals in the mix are chosen to make the iron stronger or lighter.  Tool steel is specially treated to be strong through a process called tempering.  The steel is quickly heated to a high temperature, quickly cooled (quenched) and heated again to a lower temperature.  Finally, stainless steel is mixed with high amounts of chromium and nickel to make it smooth, easy to clean and polish. Stainless steel is used for eating utensils and surgical instruments.

How do STEMists make buildings earthquake resistant?

The more lightweight and flexible a building is, the better it can withstand the lateral (sideways) forces of an earthquake.  Skyscrapers are built around a steel frame that supports the weight of the walls and floors.  Regular buildings use the walls to support the weight of the house or other structure, but in a skyscraper the weight of all those upper walls would be too much for the lower walls to support.  Steel makes tall buildings possible.

From the spire of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai during construction

From the spire of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai during construction

The foundation of a skyscraper is extremely important. Think of a pyramid with its wide base. Would it stand as well if turned upside down? Of course not!  Base-isolation, an engineering design, is used to prevent damage to buildings from the seismic impact from earthquakes. This technique where the bottom section of a building absorb the seismic waves of energy to prevent damage, was used as far back as the Mausoleum of Cyrus.

Mausoleum of Cyrus, the oldest base-isolated structure in the world

Mausoleum of Cyrus, the oldest base-isolated structure in the world

Skyscrapers are placed on a foundation designed to absorb vibrations from earthquakes.  Architects design flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers.  Think of the shock absorbers on a car.  Without proper shocks, the car would bounce dangerously as it moved over potholes or railroad crossings. The shocks keep all the tires on the ground despite bumps, just as a building’s foundation keeps the building from tipping or moving off the foundation.

Flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers

Architects design flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers.

A shake table is a device used to determine how well a building will react to earthquakes.  To see how well structures will react to earthquake shocks, building models are placed on massive outdoor shake tables and subjected to an array of ground motion energy.

Shake Table

Outdoor Shake Table

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai
The Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest skyscraper, is so tall the tip of the top sphere is visible from 95 kilometers away on a clear day. It has an enormous “mass dampener” or harmonic absorber. This is a device mounted inside skyscrapers to absorb vibrations that might otherwise damage the building. The aluminum used in the building weighs as much as five A380 aircraft and the concrete weighs as much as 100,000 elephants. The Burj Khalifa’s aesthetic and environmental design mimics the look of a hymenocallis flower with its shaped central spire while collecting 15 million gallons of water every year.

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai

Design and Inspiration from Nature

Burj Khalifa compared with some other well-known tall structures

Burj Khalifa compared with some other well-known tall structures (not all pictured are, however, earthquake proof.)

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the Taipei 101 building (over 449 meters high) includes a central column that acts as a pendulum to balance the sideways movement of seismic waves from earthquakes and typhoons.  Architects got this idea from ancient pagodas (temples) which have stood for centuries in earthquake-prone areas.  The Japanese used the same pagoda idea when they built the Yokohama Landmark Tower (296 meters tall.)

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

Taipei 101 Skyline

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stand 452 meters high. They were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 and remain the tallest twin towers in the world. They include the world’s tallest 2-story bridge connecting the 41st and 42nd floors. The bridge is designed to slide in and out of the buildings as the wind causes the buildings to sway–safer than a rigid design would be.

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia

The Petronas Towers at dusk.

Petronas Towers Skyline

The Petronas Towers and the Kuala Lumpur Tower dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur’s Central Business District.

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles
In the United States, earthquakes are most closely associated with the state of California, although there are fault lines in other areas of the country as well. The U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles is 310 meters high. It is also known as the Library Tower because it includes a restored Los Angeles library.

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles Skyline

Downtown Los Angeles Skyline

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco
Another famous skyscraper in California is the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco. This elongated pyramid was built to allow sunlight to reach the surrounding areas in spite of the building’s height of 260 meters. That was pretty groovy for them to do for their not so tall neighbors. Because of the shape of the building, the majority of the windows can pivot 360 degrees so they can be washed from the inside. The spire is actually hollow and lined with a 100-foot steel stairway at a 60 degree angle, followed by two steel ladders. There used to be a public observation deck on the 27th floor, but it was closed after 9/11. That means you can only check out the view by looking at the live feeds at the Visitor Center.

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

Interior TransAmerica Pyramid

There is a commemorative plaque in honor of Bummer and Lazarus, the famous dogs of the 1850s, at the base of the building.

Bummer and Lazarus, the famous dogs of the 1850s

Buildings of the Future

The Wilshire Grand Tower
The Wilshire Grand Tower will be 335 meters tall when completed. It will then be the tallest building in Los Angeles and the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

The Wilshire Grand Tower

Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower)
Also being built in San Francisco is the Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower.) This building will be 326 meters tall and second tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was begun in 2013 and is expected to be open in 2018.

Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower)

Architects and engineers are always looking for new ideas to build groovier buildings, especially in earthquake-prone areas. Old ideas like the pagoda and new ideas like modern alloy steel and harmonic absorbers can combine to make buildings that look groovy and stand tall through the forces of nature.

Learn More about earthquakes and earthquake proof structures with “Shake It Up” Groovy Lab in a Box!

Shake It Up” Engineering Design Challenge: You are a groovy earthquake engineer who has been contracted by the city of Los Angeles. Using only the materials from your Groovy Lab in a Box, can you design and build the tallest skyscraper that can withstand the next BIG quake?

During their engineering design process, STEMists will investigate what causes earthquakes while constructing a groovy seismograph and shake table. Explore S and P waves, fault planes, famous earthquake proof structures around the world and much, much more! From their groovy lab notebook, STEMists do investigation activities which work in tandem with the special “Beyond…in a Box” online learning portal. This is a unique feature of Groovy Lab in a Box because it gives STEMists a deeper understanding of that month’s topic. “Beyond…in a Box” has videos, reading library and more interactive activities to supplement what they are learning from the box projects, which also helps the STEMist even more when completing the design challenge.

Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box, full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations and engineering design challenges. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.

Extreme Weather Exhibits for STEMists


Weather is a daily event that we cannot control.
It is the reason we choose to wear a sweater, bring a jacket, carry an umbrella or dress in layers.  Extreme weather often causes fear, panic and anxiety, and in its wake, major devastation.  STEMists tend to have an innate curiosity about weather events such as hurricanes, windstorms, tornadoes, hail, lightning and thunderstorms, and wonder why and how they occur.

Extreme Weather Exhibits for STEMists

Here are three groovy weather exhibits where STEMists and their families can interact with the science of weather.

Chicago Science Storms

STEMists will experience the perfect storm at the Science Storms exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry located in Chicago, Illinois. Science Storms is a journey that takes STEMists and their families from wonder to inquiry, curiosity to observation, and investigation to understanding. Science Storms helps STEMists make sense of the scientific process behind seven natural phenomena—lightning, fire, tornados, avalanches, tsunamis, sunlight and atoms in motion.

Science Storms exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry located in Chicago, Illinois

STEMists will learn about the conditions required to create a tornado at the 40-foot vortex live science experience; view the dramatic high voltage lightning charge while sitting beneath a large tesla coil; and investigate how fuel, oxygen and heat combine to create a flame. The exhibit is home to more than 50 experiments that span over two floors and 26,000 square feet, and attempt to help STEMists gain an understanding of the scientific process, physics and chemistry behind powerful Mother Nature.

San Francisco Earthquakes

The California Academy of Sciences Earthquake exhibit in San Francisco, California, is your ticket to understanding and exploring how seismic science has shaped Earth’s evolution.  In its walk-through Earth exhibit, STEMists can examine geologic specimens, and learn how earthquake waves can give us a better understanding about the inner workings of Earth’s solid core.

California Academy of Sciences Earthquake Exhibit

The San Francisco Shakes exhibit lets STEMists and their families experience simulated tremors of the two biggest earthquakes in the city—the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 and the 1906 Great San Francisco quake.  Visitors gather inside a Victorian-era home replica that stays true to its era— even the chandelier in the dining room has LED light strips to simulate incandescent lighting of 1989 and the flickering gas lights of 1906. During the three-minute earthquake simulation, visitors will notice various brightly colored household items rattling and shaking against the white walls.

The CAS website also entices visitors to read the titles of the books located on the bottom shelf of the book case in the dining room to reveal the bigger idea behind the entire Earthquake exhibit.  STEMists and their families will walk away from the San Francisco Shakes exhibit having experienced the difference between a 7.1 magnitude (Loma Prieta) versus a 7.8 magnitude (Great San Francisco).

The Earthquake Engineering Movie, also part of the Earthquake exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences, is an event you won’t want to miss.  The movie explores how scientists are using seismic science to build stronger, safer buildings.—a must-see for any investigative STEMist!

Florida Hurricanes

Hurricanes are a distant relative to the tornado and much stronger, affecting greater area both on land and sea.  Heavy rains, lightning, and hail with top-speed winds and tornados all accompany a hurricane, and is perhaps one of the most curious of the extreme weather events. Hurricane research is conducted throughout the U.S.; however none compare to The Wall of Wind (WOW).

The Wall of Wind

WOW, located within at Florida International University’s (FIU) International Hurricane Research Center (IHRC) in Miami, Florida, is capable of simulating a Category 5 hurricane.  The Wall of Wind is housed in the most powerful university research facility of its kind, and consists of 12 enormous fans generating high speed winds that replicate CAT 5 levels– the highest rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Researchers and engineers are convinced WOW will greatly influence the engineering and design of our future.

The IHRC also holds an annual Wall of Wind Challenge competition for teams of high school students who provide a solution for wind-related problems.  The WOW Challenge consists of a written paper, oral presentation and a physical test of their mitigation strategy. If your STEMists are fascinated by hurricane-force winds, FIU should be on the top of their college choice list.

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