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Supercomputing an earthquake-ready building

Speed read
  • Natural hazards researchers design safer buildings with supercomputers
  • NSF-funded DesignSafe CI provides a central location for simulation and data analysis  
  • XSEDE support ensures scientists can optimize computational resources to complete their research

If someone is inside a building during an earthquake, there isn’t much they can do except duck under a table and hope for the best.

That’s why designing safe buildings is an important priority for natural hazards researchers.

Digital laboratory. Ellen Rathje uses XSEDE's user support services to create a workspace for researchers in the field of Natural Hazard Engineering. Courtesy Ellen Rathje, XSEDE; National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Natural hazards engineering involves experimentation, numerical simulation, and data analysis to improve seismic design practices. 

To facilitate this research, the US National Science Foundation (NSF) has invested in the DesignSafe cyberinfrastructure so that researchers can fully harness the vast amount of data available in natural hazards engineering. 

Led by Ellen Rathje at the University of Texas and developed by the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), DesignSafe includes an interactive web interface, repositories to share data sets, and a cloud-based workspace for researchers to perform simulation, computation, data analysis, and other tasks. 

For example, scientists may use a device known as a shake table to simulate earthquake movement and measure how buildings respond to them.

“From a shaking table test we can measure the movements of a building due to a certain seismic loading,” Rathje says, “and then we can develop a numerical model of that building subjected to the same earthquake loading.”

Researchers then compare the simulation to experimental data that’s been collected previously from observations in the field.

“In natural hazards engineering, we take advantage of a lot of experimental data,” Rathje says, “and try to couple it with numerical simulations, as well as field data from observations, and bring it all together to make advances.”

The computational resources of Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) make these simulations possible. DesignSafe facilitates the use of these resources within the natural hazards engineering research community.

<strong>Taming the tsunami? </strong> The 2011 Tohuko tsunami caused severe structural damage and the loss of many lives — almost 16,000 dead, over 6,000 injured, and 2,500 missing. Natural hazards engineers use supercomputer simulations and shake tables to minimize damage by designing safer buildings. Courtesy EPA.

According to Rathje, the merger between the two groups is beneficial for both and for researchers interested in natural hazards engineering.

Rathje previously researched disasters such as the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and earthquakes in Japan. While the collaboration between XSEDE and TACC is a step forward for natural hazards research, Rathje says it’s just another step toward making buildings safer during earthquakes.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in natural hazards engineering,” she admits, “but we’ve been able to bring it all under one umbrella so that natural hazards researchers can come to one place to get the data they need for their research.”

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