08-27-13 | Blog Post

Michigan Data Center Earthquake Risks

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Michigan Data Centers Offer Minimal Earthquake Risks
This week we take a look at what geographical U.S. regions contain high earthquake risks. Earthquakes are unlike other natural disasters such as tornadoes or hurricanes because they can not be predicted. However, scientists can estimate their probability of occurring by looking at historical data.

Thousands of quakes occur in the United States each year but most are too small to offer a strong impact. According to FEMA, 38 states have moderate to high seismic hazards, so there is high probability that many data centers are located in areas with high earthquake risks. In order to lower the risks, data center operators can select areas like Michigan that offer low risks by studying seismic hazard maps and fault zones.

Earthquake High Risk Locations
Earthquakes occur when there is a sudden movement of the Earth’s crust.  This movement usually occurs along faults, which are zones of crushed rock separating blocks of crusts.  The state of California, which hosts the most data centers, offers some of the greatest earthquake risks.  According to a study reported by sciencedaily.com, California has more than a 99% chance of a magnitude of a 6.7 or larger earthquake in the next 30 years.

Some of the biggest earthquakes occur in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, 50 miles offshore of Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia, an area that also houses a high concentration of data centers.  Scientists have calculated an average time between major quakes in this area is around 270 years.  It has been 308 years since the last significant earthquake. New research has put the probability of a quake, with a magnitude 8 or greater, as high as 75 percent in the next 50 years, says Chris Goldfinder, Oregon State University marine geologist.

Another large fault area is near the middle of the country in New Madrid, Missouri.  The USGS estimates that this areas has a seven to 10 percent chance of a major (7.5 and 8 magnitude) earthquake in the next 50 years.  This is a lower probability than in the California Bay Area, but the potential for disaster is greater due to the size of the area and lack of awareness and preparedness.

The Wasatch Fault lies underneath Salt Lake City, Utah and is one of the world’s longer faults.  Scientists have found that this area has at least one major earthquake every 300 to 500 years.  The last large earthquake was 300 years ago and this populated area is overdue for a major quake says Wired.com.

Earthquake Risk Map

US Natural Disaster Map
US Natural Disaster Map


Seismic Risks
Data center operators can choose to look at areas with low seismic risks.  According to FEMA, there are three main factors that determine seismic risks: the level of seismic hazards, the exposure of people and property in an area, and the vulnerability to these hazards.

The level of seismic hazards considers the different sources of damage or harm like the possibilities of landslides or tsunamis.  Other structural hazards like buildings collapsing, pipes busting or loose equipment, which can become hazardous when an earthquake occurs are also considered.

The exposure to earthquake hazards is determined by the number of people in an area and/or the infrastructure in an area.  Seismic risks increase in areas that are more densely populated or urbanized. Once again we see in highly populated areas like southern California or Seattle, Washington, risks are higher than in less densely populated areas.

Finally, the vulnerability of an area can increase the seismic hazard risks.  In areas that buildings and other infrastructure are built with seismic building codes and standards will have lower risks than in areas that older structures were built under less-effective codes.

Earthquake Hazard Map
Looking at FEMA’s earthquake hazard map, we can see the geographical regions with high possibility of earthquake hazards.  These maps take into consider all three factors include the level of hazards, exposure and vulnerability of an area.

The eastern half of the United States contains a high level of hazards along the New Madrid fault, which includes Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky and western Tennessee. This area highlighted in red would see the strongest shaking and substantial damage would occur during an earthquake episode.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we can look at the Great Lake region where Michigan has a very low probability of experiencing any damaging earthquake effects.

Eastern Earthquake Hazard Map
Eastern Earthquake Hazard Map

Source: http://www.fema.gov/earthquake/earthquake-hazard-maps

The western half of the United States has a high concentration of reds and oranges in California, Oregon, and Washington.  All of these areas could experience strong shaking during a quake with poorly built structures receiving a considerable amount of damage.  This area also has a high concentration of data centers as well as population which offers a significant level of risk.

Western Earthquake Hazard Map
Western Earthquake Hazard Map

Source: http://www.fema.gov/earthquake/earthquake-hazard-maps

Michigan Offers Low Earthquake Risks and Hazards
The state of Michigan offers very low earthquake frequency and severity risks.  Most of Michigan ranks in the lowest seismic zone category and is 36th in the U.S. for earthquake hazards according to the USGS.  The closest hazard zone to Michigan is approximately 350 to 600 miles from Michigan in the Lower Wabash Valley in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the New Madrid Seismic Zone.

Many data centers located in high risk areas use seismically resistant building structures and equipment. However, many data centers rely on utilities like HVAC systems and commercial power. A large earthquake could cause a temporary blackout over multiple states and even longer-term outages closer to where the quake actually hit.

Unfortunately, earthquakes can damage a large area and a backup facility that is close to the primary site might be rendered inoperative by the same earthquake. A Michigan backup facility can offer low earthquake risks and reduce the chance that an earthquake will interrupt daily operations.

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