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Developing and implementing an International Macroseismic Scale (IMS) for earthquake engineering, earthquake science, and rapid damage assessment

January 8, 2024

Executive Summary

Macroseismic observations and analysis connect our collective seismological past with the present and the present to the future by facilitating hazard estimates and communicating the effects of ground shaking to a wide variety of audiences across the ages. Invaluable ground shaking and building damage information is gained through standardized, systematic approaches for assigning intensities and, importantly, sharing and archiving those assignments in a reproducible form. The applications for these assignments are far reaching. Traditional macroseismic surveys provide vital constraints on critical aspects of earthquakes and their effects on society, whereas internet-based macroseismic datasets are extremely valuable for real-time earthquake situational awareness, and they contribute to later engineering loss and risk analyses. These important applications of macroseismic observations would be helped by revisiting traditional macroseismic surveys for modern environments, standardizing internet-based collection strategies, and ensuring compatibility between traditional and internet-based approaches of macroseismic data collection.

Even with best practices, we have identified several limitations with modern macroseismic data collection approaches, particularly from the U.S. Geological Survey's perspective. First, whereas crowdsourced, internet-based intensities such as “Did You Feel It?” are robust and definitive for lower intensities, they are poorly defined above intensity VII, where damage observations may require expert knowledge of each building’s structural system.

Second, in the United States, we use the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) Scale, which is consistent with—yet inferior to—the more recently developed European Macroseismic Scale (EMS–98; Grünthal and others, 1998). Similarly, New Zealand uses the New Zealand MMI Scale (Dowrick and others, 2008), which lacks detail on how to assign intensities above MMI VIII. The EMS–98 fundamentally advanced the science of macroseismic intensity assignment by requiring quantitative assessments at each location through consistent application on statistical ranges of well-defined damage grades to building-specific vulnerability classes. Lastly, the United States and New Zealand no longer have professionals dedicated to conducting traditional macroseismic field surveys, so a strategy is needed for allowing postearthquake building inspectors and insurance loss assessors to contribute to intensity assignments.

The goals of our International Macroseismic Scale workshop were thus twofold. First, harmonize the MMI Scale with EMS–98 for the United States and New Zealand—which share several similar building types—by considering those structures and associated damage grades that are not well represented in the current EMS–98 building vulnerability class table. Second, begin to formalize the process of augmenting EMS–98 with new regional building classes and damage grades toward the development of a macroseismic scale that can be used globally, beyond the United States and New Zealand. Such an effort necessarily requires reviewing and expanding the original EMS–98 explanatory documents and consideration of any required revisions. We can build on the shoulders of giants in that a few of the original EMS–98 developers and experts participated in and were integral to our workshop. Their background and guidance were key in moving forward toward an international scale.

We agreed that additional building vulnerability classes, damage grades, and written and pictorial descriptions are necessary and ideally accompanied by a detailed paper trail for other nations to follow. If we can improve the macroseismic assignment process in both nations, we can also aim to refine the process of collecting postearthquake impact data, a boon to many engineering and financial concerns.

The benefits of a truly International Macroseismic Scale are considerable for both the engineering and seismology communities. A modern macroseismic scale requires more deliberate archival damage data collection, motivating more consistent and accessible postevent datasets that would have applications beyond the specific event. Applying field-collected building damage data toward macroseismic assignments would allow for increased coordination between engineering reconnaissance teams and local inspectors in collecting such data for official purposes. In addition, rapid and consistent intensity assignments globally would enable more accurate ShakeMaps—and thus improved earthquake engineering and geotechnical forensics, loss and risk estimates, and correlations between macroseismic intensity and ground motion parameters.

A brief summary of the Powell Center IMS workshop was published by Wald and others (2023) in the magazine Eos. This Open-File Report describes the workshop, its discussions, and its outcomes in detail. In summarizing the workshop, we have added important background material and reflections for proper context.

Publication Year 2024
Title Developing and implementing an International Macroseismic Scale (IMS) for earthquake engineering, earthquake science, and rapid damage assessment
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231098
Authors David J. Wald, Tatiana Goded, Ayse Hortascu, Sabine Chandradewi Loos
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2023-1098
Index ID ofr20231098
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geologic Hazards Science Center - Seismology / Geomagnetism