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Opportunities at the epicentre of engineering

Recent events in India and El Salvador may have demonstrated the appalling devastation earthquakes can cause, but there is little doubt these events also confirm what every previous major recent earthquake has shown; that well built and properly engineered structures can protect life even during extreme shaking. Almost all deaths are caused by builders ignoring rules which have become well known and established over the last 30 years.

The urgent need for able and well trained earthquake engineers is clear, but at first sight Britain - one of the most seismically stable countries on earth - would seem an unlikely place to find them. In fact, the UK has a long tradition of excellence in the subject. A recent survey found over a dozen universities actively engaged in seismic engineering research, with four of them - Imperial College, Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford - having world class experimental facilities. In industry too there is extensive expertise, with the Society for Earthquake & Civil Engineering Dynamics (SECED) listing 35 commercial organisations offering earthquake engineering services.

A major reason for this expertise arises from the work UK consultants carry out in seismically active parts of the world.

The entire Pacific rim is subject to severe earthquakes and there is another major belt of seismicity stretching from southern Europe into Turkey and parts of the former Soviet Union across into the Himalayas and China.

British engineers have been responsible for ensuring the seismic safety of many buildings, hospitals, bridges and industrial facilities in these areas.

Even in Britain, earthquakes can and do occur and high risk industrial facilities, particularly nuclear ones, have to be seismically qualified. This has proved another important source of work for British earthquake engineers.

Seismic design not only pits the engineer against some of the most destructive forces in nature, but also provides challenges at the forefront of structural mechanics. The analytical demands can be formidable and an ability in non-linear dynamic analysis is required. Not only are the structures themselves shaken, but so are the soils that support them. Understanding this often complex response is vital, as was demonstrated by the dockside failures at Kobe in the 1995 Japanese earthquake.

A fascinating aspect of earthquake engineering is the range of disciplines involved. As well as assessing how facilities respond to an earthquake, which involves structural and geotechnical dynamics, there are major challenges in defining an appropriate level of shaking to design for in the first place. This requires fields as diverse as geology and geophysics, hazard and probability theory and even historical research for investigating earthquakes before the advent of modern instruments. There is a very practical side too; poor detailing, construction methods and materials are a common source of failure, and earthquake engineers must be able to step down from the realms of higher mathematics to encompass such mundane issues. Indeed, seeing the results of a major earthquake at first hand is one of the most instructive experiences a seismic engineer can have.

Consultants recruiting for specialist earthquake engineering work are likely to ask for a higher degree of some sort; an MSc or PhD in some aspect of structural dynamics would a be typical requirement. Imperial College offers a well established and respected one year MSc in earthquake engineering, but qualifications from other universities in the UK and abroad are also valid, with international centres of excellence such as UC Berkeley (USA) or Canterbury (New Zealand) being highly regarded. The SECED directory is a useful source for details of potential employers in the UK and there are plenty of opportunities for overseas work.

Edmund Booth runs his own consultancy in earthquake engineering and is a visiting professor at Oxford University

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