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Seismic hazards and land-use planning

January 1, 1994

Basic earth-science data are necessary for a realistic assessment of seismic hazards and as a basis for limiting corrective land-use controls only to those areas of greatest hazard. For example, the location, character, and amount of likely displacement and activity of surface faulting can be predicted if detailed geologic maps and seismic data are available and are augmented by field studies at critical localities. Because few structures can withstand displacement of their foundations, they should be located off active fault traces, the distance varying with the character of faulting, the certainty with which fault traces are known, and the importance of the structure. Recreational activities and other nonoccupancy land uses should be considered for fault zone areas where land is under pressure for development; elsewhere, such areas should remain as open space.

Two methods of predicting ground shaking effects have applications to land-use decisions: (1) Relative earthquake effects can be related to firmness of the ground and can be used in a gross way to allocate population density in the absence of more sophisticated analyses; and (2) intensity maps, based on, (a) damage from former earthquakes, or (b) a qualitative analyses of geologic units added to a design earthquake, can be helpful both for general and specific plans. Theoretical models are used with caution to predict ground motion for critical structures to be located at specific sites with unique foundation conditions. Fully adequate methods of assessing possible shaking remain to be developed. Where land-use decisions do not reflect likely ground shaking effects, stringent building codes are needed, particularly for important structures.

Ground failure (landsliding, ground cracking and lurching, differential settlement, sand boils, and subsidence) commonly results from liquefaction, loss of soil strength, or compaction. Areas suspected of being most likely to fail should not be developed unless detailed site studies can demonstrate the hazard does not exist or can be overcome. Various methods can be used to reduce the high, long-term public costs that follow development of unstable ground. However, areas subject to tectonic deformation generally cannot be predicted nor can effects of such deformation be minimized.

Large water waves, such as produced by tsunamis, seiches, and dam failure or overtopping, can be anticipated in many places. Their effects can be lessened by land-use regulations similar to flood-plain zoning, restrictions on location of critical structures, and appropriate warning systems.

Many local, state, and federal government agencies, universities, and private consultants may be able to assist planners by advising them of pertinent data and where those data can be obtained. Interpretation of the data for an evaluation of seismic risk commonly requires a team of planners, geologists, and soil and structural engineers.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1974
Title Seismic hazards and land-use planning
DOI 10.3133/cir690
Authors Donald R. Nichols, Jane M. Buchanan-Banks
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 690
Index ID cir690
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse