The surround-sounds of mass destruction
Civil engineer Ron Hamburger surveyed infrastructure damage during last year's devastating Chilean earthquake.
March 11th, 2011
05:09 PM ET

The surround-sounds of mass destruction

What does it sound like in the middle of a powerful and deadly earthquake?

Through his work with the American Society of Civil Engineers, Ron Hamburger has lived through dozens of quake aftermaths and aftershocks while studying their damage on buildings and other infrastructure.

As most people know, the intense shaking of the ground inflicts incredible stresses on buildings. But what may not be so apparent is how these noises offer clues to what's really happening inside the floors and walls of each structure.

Buildings made of steel or reinforced concrete don't topple from earthquakes very often. But when they do, they make very loud and scary noises, Hamburger says.

Strands of reinforcing steel inside the walls of the buildings fracture as the strands release energy from the shaking. Eventually, if enough of these steel strands break, the building will fall over.

"The sound is very similar to the sound of gunshots," said Hamburger. "It can sound like a large caliber gun going off very close to you."

Fortunately, that sound is not common, he says. "And if you hear it - it's not good."

What's more common is the sound of rumbling.

"When the ground is shaking you hear a rumbling type noise because everything - everything the ground, cars - is moving and creaking and groaning," he says.

People riding out quakes inside buildings, Hamburger says, will often hear "a sound like someone jumping up and down on a bed - you know the noise that bedsprings make."

That noise is the sound of the studs in the architectural walls of the building as they wrack back and forth, he says. "They sort of creak and groan and make noises like that."

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Chile • Japan
soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. H Maddox

    I have watched alot of the news today. I just saw once again the scene where the cars are rolling in the water and going under a bridge. When the news caster said they didn't know if the people got out of their cars. I watched it three times. Right after that statement there is a white car/van and it looks like some one has their hand on the wind sheild trying to brace them selves. Prayers go out to them!

    March 11, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ed Bailey

    Mr Patterson, why did you write that article. Did you and the hamburger have a shared moment of 60's style hippie reflection or did CNN just need a filler for the moment. Trajedy's can make big booms.wow never knew that. Watched a kid flip an armored personnel carrier once. He didn't get his head back in the hatch and it didn't make a sound! (did I mean the 26000 lbs hitting the ground or his head?) cnn's reporting is top notch writing! Dah.

    March 12, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |