Engineers and seismologists at the recent Australian Earthquake Engineering Society conference discussed the devastating effects of earthquakes in the region and the need to improve the earthquake safety of buildings.

According to the organisation, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake, equivalent to the destructive 2011 Christchurch earthquake, happens in Australia every 10 years.

According to Dr Paul Somerville, President of the Australian Earthquake Engineering Society, Australians are unaware of the frequency at which earthquakes of this magnitude occur in the country. Describing it as a rare but foreseeable scenario, he warns that the impact of such an earthquake on any Australian city would be devastating, given that few modern buildings in the country are designed to adequately resist the ground motion arising from such large seismic events. Older buildings are at even greater risk during such events.

Somerville observes that earthquakes may be infrequent in occurrence but the insurance industry assesses the risk as high, given the high density and vulnerability of city buildings.

He recalled that falling masonry, especially parapet walls killed many people during the Christchurch quake while others died in the collapse of poorly designed concrete frame buildings.

Somerville urged governments and city councils to take measures to mitigate these well-known risks by fostering an environment wherein new construction follows design procedures and construction practices that provide the robustness and resilience required by buildings to withstand earthquakes.

Since city councils will be at the forefront of response and recovery following the next earthquake, he said council engineers have an important role to play now, beginning with identifying and ensuring the repair of hazardous buildings, especially schools and hospitals; establishing good communication links with Emergency Management Australia; compiling a list of trained Urban Search and Rescue engineers in their area; and making plans for earthquake response and recovery.

Commenting that the possibility of a large earthquake occurring in an Australian city is very real, Somerville adds that the cost of improving earthquake safety in the buildings is minimal compared to the massive economic losses and deaths that could occur in Australian cities should the risk be ignored.