3

Determination of Site
Characteristics

3.1 Introduction
In seismic regions, geotechnical site investigations should obviously include the gathering of information about the physical nature of the site and its environs that will
allow an adequate evaluation of seismic hazard to be made. The scope of the investigation will be a matter of professional judgement, depending on the seismicity of the
area and the nature of the site, as well as of the proposed or existing construction.
In addition to the effects of local soil conditions upon the severity of ground motion,
the investigation should cover possible earthquake danger from geological or other
consequential hazards such as:








fault displacement;
subsidence (flooding and/or differential settlement);
liquefaction of cohesionless soils;
failure of sensitive or quick clays;
landslides;
mudflows;
dam failures;
water waves (tsunamis, seiches);
groundwater discharge changes.

The seismic characteristics of local geology and soil conditions described briefly in the
following section provides an introduction to the site investigations, and to the determination of design ground motions and soil response analyses described in Chapters
4 and 5.

3.2 Local Geology and Soil Conditions
In many earthquakes the local geology and soil conditions have had a profound influence on site response. The term ‘local’ is a somewhat vague one, generally meaning
Earthquake Risk Reduction D.J. Dowrick
 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd ISBN: 0-471-49688-X (HB)

and some of the more important are now discussed with reference to Figure 3. .2 and 5. focusing. for instance. The Mexico earthquakes of 1957 and 1985 witnessed extensive damage to long-period structures in the former lake bed area of Mexico City where the flexible lacustrine deposits caused great amplification of long period waves (Rosenblueth.1) affect the response locally within that site. 1986). (1) The greater the horizontal extent (L1 or L2 ) of the softer soils. and may profoundly affect the safety of a structure straddling the two soil types. (2) The depth (H1 or H2 ) of soil overlying bedrock affects the dynamic response. as discussed in Section 5. Factors influencing the local modifications to the underlying motion are the topography and nature of the bedrock and the nature and geometry of the depositional soils. 1972). the term ‘local’ may involve a depth of a kilometre or more. 1972)..1. local differences in geology and soil produce different surface ground motions at the two sites. Again. This helps to determine the frequency of the waves amplified or filtered out by the soils and is also related to the amount of soil-structure interaction that will occur in an earthquake (Sections 5. A more typical example of an earthquake where the fundamental period of structures which were most damaged was closely related to depth of alluvium. whereas the local soil profiles at both locations were considered identical. Thus. (5) The topography of both the bedrock and the deposited soils has various effects on the incoming seismic waves.28 Determination of site characteristics local compared to the total terrain transversed between the earthquake source and the site. it may well be that geological features such as hidden irregularities in the bedrock topography explain some of the otherwise unexplained differences of response observed at nearby sites. and an area within a horizontal distance of several kilometres from the site. Mathematical modelling is influenced by this. how are the response modifications at sites G and J to be reliably predicted due to these effects in valley 3? While there will always be some inherent variability (uncertainty) in the spatial distribution of ground motion.3). the natural period of vibration of the ground increasing with increasing depth. was that in Caracas in 1967 (Seed et al.1) may be amenable to calculation. long-period structures were damaged in areas of greater depth of alluvium. (4) Changes of soil types horizontally across a site (sites F and G in Figure 3. in the 1971 San Fernando earthquake (Housner and Jennings.2. but it is less easy to deal rigorously with non-horizontal strata. and scattering. (3) The slope of the bedding planes (valleys 2 and 3 in Figure 3. Romo and Seed. On the assumption that the gross bedrock vibration will be similar at two adjacent sites. the peak acceleration recorded at one site was 21% g while only 11% g was recorded at the other. For example.1) of the soils overlying bedrock obviously affects the dynamic response. while focusing effects in bedrock (valleys 1 and 2 in Figure 3. Soil conditions and local geological features affecting site response are numerous.2. Unfortunately many of these effects always remain suppositional. 1960. refraction. such as reflection. the less the boundary effects of the bedrock on the site response. at two locations on the campus of the California Institute of Technology.

Bedrock 1 A H1 L1 Figure 3.1 B 2 H2 D E H F G Schematic diagram illustrating local geology and soil features C L2 3 J Bedrock Local geology and soil conditions 29 .

2) where liquefaction occurred in thin lenses of sand contained in the clay. where normally consolidated clays with slopes of less than one degree can fail if subjected to external forces such as earthquakes or waves (Henkel. For instance. as seen in the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (Seed 1968). of course. by one particular avalanche which travelled 18 km at speeds of 200–400 km/h.2). 1980) in which it was shown that slopes of less than 1 degree would fail under a ground acceleration of about 0. In steep terrain (Site H in Figure 3. Anchorage. (8) Spectacular soil failures can also occur in gentle slopes. completely fail in earthquakes.1 g. landslides occurred in basically clay deposits (Figure 3. due to liquefaction of sand lenses (after Seed. During the development of the North Sea oil and gas fields the author was involved in a study (Ove Arup and Partners. (7) Slopes of sedimentary deposits may.1) where magnification of basic motion by factors as high as about two may occur (Section 5. Elevation (m) 20 10 0 −10 0 Sand lenses 20 m 20 10 0 −10 Soil profile before earthquake 20 10 0 −10 Liquefied sand 20 10 0 −10 Soil profile during earthquake 20 10 0 −10 Failure surface 20 10 0 −10 Soil profile through slide area Figure 3. Alaska.1.000 people were killed (Cluff. some of the slope failures resulted from upper soil layers sliding on a slippery (wet) supporting layer of clay.30 Determination of site characteristics (6) Another topographical feature affecting response is that of ridges (Site B in Figure 3. Site E. in which whole towns were buried and about 20. 1970). 1968) (reproduced by permission of the American Society of Civil Engineers) .e. and again in the 1968 Tokachi-Oki earthquake (Suzuki. Similar phenomena are known to occur on land in highly sensitive (i. In the Tokachi-Oki earthquake. This ‘greasy back’ situation could occur as illustrated in Figure 3.2. 1971). 1971). quick) clays and on the sea floor.2 Conceptual development of Turnagain Heights landslide. The slope failures in the Alaskan earthquake were mostly related to liquefaction of layers of soil. This occurred in the Northern Peru earthquakes of 31 May 1970.1) failure may be in the form of landslides.

but liquefaction may also occur in flat terrain composed of saturated cohesionless soils (Section 5. such as the narrow inlets of the southern Alaskan coast. damping. This is illustrated by the very different response spectra for different soils shown in Figure 3. 1985). such as the overview by Wiegel (1976). there has been .2.. More information on seismic water waves should be sought in the specialist literature.2). seiches have caused considerable damage. called tsunami. The discharge may cause local flooding or streams to dry up. are caused by vertical displacements of blocks of sea bed. density. The dynamic properties of individual soils are described in terms of mechanical properties such as shear modulus. and the structure’s ability to tolerate the design displacement. sometimes need to be evaluated (Section 4. This applies not only to sloping soils as mentioned above. (10) Faults of varying degrees of potential activity sometimes cross the site of proposed or existing construction and cases of damage have been recorded. The recurrence intervals of given levels of fault displacement both horizontal and vertical. Idaho earthquake (Wood et al. Various other coastlines are susceptible to damaging tsunami. the seismic response of a site and structures on it is of course a function of the local soil types and their condition (ground classes). Classical examples of failures of this type occurred in the Alaskan and Tokachi-Oki earthquakes referred to above.3.1). (11) Water waves are sometimes generated by earthquakes. and to a lesser extent rock. apparently due to changes in porewater pressure. where a disastrous tsunami struck in the 1964 Great Alaska earthquake. such as observed in the 1983 Borah Peak.2. hundreds of metres inland in flat terrain. Tsunami damage can be serious in cases where the causative earthquake has occurred at any distance from local to thousands of kilometres away. particularly the Pacific and Indian Oceans.8). extensive sand boils. Those occurring in the sea. and compactability as discussed in Section 5. vary widely from site to site in a region and worldwide. (13) Finally. waves of considerable height (10 m) may surge well beyond the normal high tide limit. Water waves called seiches may also occur in the enclosed waters of lakes and harbours due to resonance effects or landslides. These extreme effects only occur where the topography of the coastline focuses the wave energy. while not as large as tsunami. Fortunately as knowledge has grown in recent years of site response to earthquakes.Ground classes and microzones 31 (9) The water content of the soil is an important factor in site response. low-amplitude surface wave in the sea reaches the shore. (12) Changes in groundwater discharge occur after earthquakes. and. Where the resulting high-velocity. in which most of the world’s tsunami are generated along shallow offshore earthquake belts (Figure 2. or erosion. 3.3 Ground Classes and Microzones As soil types and thicknesses. and in the much-studied 1964 Niigata earthquake. many different ways of classifying sites exist.

1974) .3 (a) Mean acceleration spectra for different site conditions.30 records Stiff soil conditions (<150 ft) .0 2.15 records 3 Deep cohesionless soils (>250 ft) .28 records 2 1 AEC regulatory guide 0 0 0.0 2.31 records 2 Rock .28 records 1 0 0 0.0 (b) Figure 3.30 records 3 Stiff soil conditions (<150 ft) .0 (a) Total number of records analysed: 104 Spectral acceleration Maximum ground acceleration 4 Spectra for 5% damping Soft to medium clay and sand ..5 Period – seconds 2. (b) mean plus one standard deviation (84 percentile) acceleration spectra for different site conditions (after Seed et al.5 3.32 Determination of site characteristics 4 Spectral acceleration Maximum ground acceleration Total number of records analysed: 104 Spectra for 5% damping Soft to medium clay and sand .0 1.5 1.15 records Deep cohesionless soils (>250 ft) .5 1.5 Period – seconds 2.5 3.0 1.31 records Rock .