O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory
O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory

5 Machines that Simulate Natural Disasters

O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory
O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory

Natural disasters can strike at any time, causing huge loss of life and billions of dollars in damage. Scientists are using these machines to help us be better prepared.

1. UC San Diego Jacobs School Shake Table

If you were the kind of kid who liked to build houses out of blocks then knock them down, consider enrolling or getting a job at UC San Diego, where scientists do that kind of thing pretty often: They build full-sized structures on top of a 25 x 40-foot table—the largest in the country—then shake it to see how well different types of construction, various kinds of materials, and retrofits to existing buildings might stand up in a quake.

The $5.9 million hydraulically-driven machine can vibrate at 6 feet per second with a maximum force of 4.2 Gs. The machine has been used to test everything from “wind turbines, to masonry, wood-frame and precast concrete buildings, as well as non-structural building elements, such as stairs, elevators and even hospital equipment,” according to a school press release. You can watch the table shake a 4-story 1920s-style building retrofitted with cross-laminated timber above.

2. Iowa State University Tornado Simulator

This first-of-its-kind machine, which opened in 2004, consists of two parts: a huge cylinder, suspended from a 5-ton crane, that contains a 6-foot-wide fan; and a test bed that can be raised and lowered. Scientists construct model towns on the test bed, then fire up the fan—which creates a tornado-like vortex with 55mph winds—and move it over the “town.” The machine’s sheer size allows scientists to build bigger model structures, creating a more realistic version of what might happen in an actual tornado.

3. and 4. Oregon State University’s Tsunami Basin and Large Wave Flume

The O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University has a pair of wave-generating machines. The 160-foot-long, 87-foot-wide, and 7-foot-deep Directional Tsunami Wavemaker is equipped with electric motors and uses pistons to push out 29 waveboards to create tsunami-like waves.

The Large Wave Flume (the largest in North America) measures 342 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 15 feet deep, and can create waves 5 feet high. In both structures, scientists study the effects of the kinds of waves seen in nature on models of everything from buildings to telephone poles to levees. Recent research done using the machines showed that coastal forests might help mitigate tsunami damage.

5. Florida International University’s “Wall of Wind” Hurricane Simulator

This massive, $8 million machine consists of 12 fans, each 6 feet in diameter and 700hp, that can generate winds up to 157 mph—the kinds of winds you’d see in a Category 5 hurricane. At peak flow, the system pumps as much air as 7650 leaf blowers. In one demonstration, the FIU team built two structures: One built to code before 1992's Hurricane Andrew, and one built with codes created after. According to the Miami Herald,

The first things to go were roof shingles but pre-Andrew designs, rated for just 60 mph, held up nearly as well as heavier products rated for 130 mph. Half of the supposedly stronger shingles began peeling away as the digital wind gauge hit 109 mph, just Cat 2 strength. But as the wind increased, there was no comparison between old and new. At Cat 3, the older design lost half the tar paper intended to keep out rain. At Cat 4, a whole section of thinner plywood sheathing began buckling furiously, then flew off in a flash.

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Engineers Have Figured Out How the Leaning Tower of Pisa Withstands Earthquakes
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Builders had barely finished the second floor of the Tower of Pisa when the structure started to tilt. Despite foundational issues, the project was completed, and eight centuries and at least four major earthquakes later, the precarious landmark remains standing. Now, a team of engineers from the University of Bristol and other institutions claims to have finally solved the mystery behind its endurance.

Pisa is located between the Arno and Serchio rivers, and the city's iconic tower was built on soft ground consisting largely of clay, shells, and fine sand. The unstable foundation meant the tower had been sinking little by little until 2008, when construction workers removed 70 metric tons of soil to stabilize the site. Today it leans at a 4-degree angle—about 13 feet past perfectly vertical.

Now researchers say that the dirt responsible for the tower's lean also played a vital role in its survival. Their study, which will be presented at this year's European Conference on Earthquake Engineering in Greece, shows that the combination of the tall, stiff tower with the soft soil produced an effect known as dynamic soil-structure interaction, or DSSI. During an earthquake, the tower doesn't move and shake with the earth the same way it would with a firmer, more stable foundation. According to the engineers, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is the world's best example of the effects of DSSI.

"Ironically, the very same soil that caused the leaning instability and brought the tower to the verge of collapse can be credited for helping it survive these seismic events," study co-author George Mylonakis said in a statement.

The tower's earthquake-proof foundation was an accident, but engineers are interested in intentionally incorporating the principles of DSSI into their structures—as long as they can keep them upright at the same time.

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U2’s 360-Degree Tour Stage Will Become a Utah Aquarium Attraction
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The immense stage that accompanied U2 on the band’s 360° Tour from 2009 to 2011 is getting an unexpected second life as a Utah educational attraction. It will soon be installed over a new plaza at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium outside Salt Lake City.

The Claw, a 165-foot-tall structure shaped like a large spaceship balanced on four legs—a design inspired by the space-age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport—was built to house a massive speaker system and cylindrical video screen for the band’s performances. Underneath it, a 360° stage allowed U2 to play to audiences surrounding the structure in all directions. To make it easier to tour 30 different countries with the elaborate system, which took more than a week to put together at each concert location, the band had several versions built.

U2 and its management have been looking for a buyer for the 190-ton structures since the tour ended in 2011, and it seems they have finally found a home for one of them. One of the two remaining Claw structures is coming to the Utah aquarium, where it’s being installed as part of a plaza at the institution’s new, 9-acre Science Learning Campus.

A four-legged, industrial-looking video-and-sound-projection rig rises over a crowd at a concert
The Claw at a Dublin concert in 2009
Kristian Strøbech, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As the only Claw in the U.S., the alien-looking feat of engineering will be "preserved and sustainably repurposed as a Utah landmark and symbol of science exploration and learning," according to the aquarium's press release. As part of the expansion project, the 2300-square-foot stage system will play host to festivals, movies, and other special events in two venues, one with 7000 seats and the other with 350.

The $25 million Science Learning Campus hasn’t been built yet—construction is starting this fall—so you’ll have to wait awhile to relive your U2 concert experience at the aquarium.

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