Chile was struck last month by an 8.6-magnitude earthquake that killed 13 people and forced thousands to evacuate their homes. The tremor, followed by a tsunami, was the most powerful recorded since the beginning of the year in the world's most earthquake-prone country.
But what was perhaps most notable was the contrast between the quake's seismic force and the relatively few casualties, as well as limited material damage. Officials say this can be explained by a series of planning measures implemented after an 8.8-magnitude quake that killed more than 500 people in 2010.
Though humans can do little to either predict or prevent earthquakes, we can limit their disastrous consequences. Here, we take a look at recent innovative efforts around the world in avoiding the worst when the ground starts to shake.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Unlike five years ago, when contradictory orders led residents of Chile's coastal areas to stay at home just before a tsunami was about to hit, efficient procedures enabled the rapid evacuation of about one million people after September's earthquake, Santiago-based El Mercurio reports. A few minutes after the tremor, the navy issued a tsunami warning and sent texts to residents and the media in northern and central Chile.
In a country where residents must learn to cope with such natural disasters, authorities also conduct important preventive work. Thanks to more and more sophisticated satellites, seismologists are able to analyze high-definition images of recent earthquakes that take place about every 10 years around the contact zone between Nazca and South American tectonic plates, Le Monde reports. Hundreds of high-tech seismological stations, capable of detecting the slightest telluric movement and thus reacting rapidly, have also been built across the country. These advanced stations share the collected information with seismological centers all over the world.
This preventive work also includes conceiving and building infrastructure that can resist seismic tremor. The anti-earthquake standards enacted in the 1960s were significantly reinforced in Chile's urban areas in 2010. Buildings are made using reinforced concrete and steel that is sufficiently flexible and resistant to prevent collapse. The National Emergency Office of the Ministry of the Interior also regularly organizes evacuation simulations in schools across the country.
Other advanced devices are being developed and tested in both simulated and real-life natural disasters. After Nepal was struck by a magnitude-7.8 earthquake last April, killing at least 9,000 people and injuring more than 23,000, rescuers were able to save four men trapped in rubble thanks to a technology that detects heartbeats.
The radar device, called Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER), is developed by NASA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Two prototypes were sent to Nepal in the aftermath of the quake, according to National Geographic. A FINDER can detect movements as subtle as the pulsing of skin from a heartbeat at up to about 9 meters (29.5 feet) into rubble and up to 6 meters (20 feet) into solid concrete. The four men were found under two different piles of rubble in the village of Chautara, north of Kathmandu.
NASA first developed FINDER technology to find other planets. But now, in addition to being used in natural disasters, it could also help anti-poaching teams in South Africa track rhinos hidden in bushes.
JUST A SHAKE
Although there has not been a major quake along the 600-mile Pacific Northwest fault line in the United States since 1700, a disastrous earthquake could still strike in our lifetimes. This is why several organizations have been trying to develop earthquake warning systems. So far, no technology can predict exactly when and where a quake will happen.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is currently developing a tool called ShakeAlert, which, like other monitoring systems, tracks seismic activity in real time and alerts devices and people as soon as shaking is detected. According to the USGS, the few minutes or even seconds of advance warning can be enough to save lives and protect property. For instance, it takes just seconds to turn off a stove, hold on to something, stop a vehicle, reach a safe location or stop delicate procedures.
ShakeAlert uses a series of high-quality ground motion sensors placed at six- to 12-mile-intervals and instantaneously send warnings when a quake begins. The device was first used in California in 2012 and proved to be efficient. It is now being tested by hospitals, utilities, emergency management agencies, and companies like Boeing or Microsoft in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, the AP reports.
A JAPANESE MODEL
As one of the most quake-prone countries in the world, Japan is also one of the most well-prepared. The devastating magnitude-9 earthquake that struck the Pacific coast of Tohoku in March 2011 and the tsunami that followed killed nearly 18,000 people. But as NPR reported, the country's preparedness likely saved thousands of lives. A culture and a history strongly linked to quakes has led Japanese authorities to develop advanced technology, architecture and public awareness to counter their effects.
Since the 2011 disaster, such technologies are being reinforced even further. In Tokyo, real estate developer Mitsui Fudosan and construction firm Kajima have worked on giant pendulums that can be installed on skyscraper rooftops to reduce the swaying caused by shaking by 60%, The Asahi Shimbun reports. Six of these 300-ton pendulums were installed on top of the 55-story Shinjuku Mitsui Building in Tokyo, for $54 million, AsiaOne reports.
Most of the time, earthquakes are followed by tsunamis, especially along the Pacific Ocean. These can be even deadlier than the shaking itself (about 90% of the 2011 disaster victims drowned, The Japan Times reports). In Tokyo, where there is a 70% chance that a "big one" could strike by 2016, giant flood tunnels have been built. The capital's Water Discharge Tunnel, built between 1993 and 2006 at a cost of nearly $3 billion, stretches for miles and is equipped with powerful turbines that are designed to rapidly funnel floodwaters to the nearby Edo River, CNN reports. This, like many other Japanese anti-earthquake technologies, could undoubtedly serve many other regions in the world.
Social media tools are also helping to find and help victims after natural disasters.
Last year, Facebook launched Safety Check, which asks users in affected areas if they are OK and informs their contacts. It not only reassures relatives in situations where cellular networks are potentially down, but it also makes it possible to focus on users who haven't declared their status. Safety Check was first used in Nepal last April and again after the quake in Chile last month.
Google also used a similar tool, Person Finder, a crowd-sourced missing persons database, in Nepal. Users can either search for someone in the database or provide information about a missing person. It was first used in January 2010, after the magnitude-7 earthquake that killed between 100,000 and 160,000 people.