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This scientist’s ‘ground-breaking’ legacy still lives on today

Engineering

26 April is World Richter Scale Day. Here’s why its inventor is still honoured 

On 26 April 1900, one of the world’s most famous and passionate scientists was born. His name was Professor Charles Francis Richter (pictured above), and he invented the renowned and respected Richter scale. 

Although Charles passed away on 30 September 1985, his contribution to science lives on thanks World Richter Scale Day, celebrated on 26 April each year.

The invention of the scale meant that seismologists (people who study earthquakes) could more accurately monitor and predict how dangerous an earthquake would be.

The recent earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador remind us that being able to anticipate, measure, and defend ourselves from earthquakes is an ever-present reality for many people around the world. 

“Earthquakes are a constant reminder that our planet is boiling inside and that its quiet appearance on the surface is deceptive as the earth crust, which is broken up into tectonic plates, is moving all the time,” says Dr Ali Abbas,  senior lecturer in structural engineering at the University of East London (UEL). 

“Millions of earthquakes strike the earth every year, but fortunately the majority of them are of small magnitudes and hit remote areas.”

Although countless lives have been lost to earthquakes, countless lives have also been saved, thanks to early warnings to the public that were made possible thanks to the Richter scale.

Richter even developed survival training for people living in earthquake risk areas and advised against buildings being taller than 30 storeys.     

Behind this remarkable invention was a remarkable man. 

He gained a PhD in theoretical physics from the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech), and taught and researched there from 1937-70.

His new scale superseded the Mercalli Scale, invented in 1902 by a Catholic priest and geologist from Italy called Giuseppe Mercalli, whose scale rated the shock of quakes from 1-12.

Although a top scientist, he only published one book and co-authored another, and rarely published articles in academic journals – something of an anomaly within the academic community. 

Despite this, his passion for earthquakes knew no bounds. He learnt Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, and Japanese, just so he could read scientific papers in their original languages.

He even had a huge seismograph installed in his living room, so he could monitor earthquakes from home. 

He also understood the importance of engaging with the media. He would respond to journalist requests at any hour of the day or night. When lecturing he would have the phone by his side, ready to answer a call when a breaking earthquake story unfolded. 

A modern seismograph can help scientists detect earthquakes and measure the time at which the earthquake occurred, the epicentre, which is the location on the surface of the earth where the earthquake occurred, and the amount of energy released by the earthquake.

“The Richter Scale is used to calculate the amount of energy released during ground motion using the graph plotted by means of a seismograph device”, explains Dr Abbas.

Like Mercalli, Richter has in some ways been superseded by more advanced techniques. 

Dr Abbas says, “There are of course modern revisions and alternatives to the Richter Scale which provide a more precise picture.

“Nevertheless, the Richter Scale legacy goes on in large part due to its ability to give a simple overall measure, making it useful in news reporting, and even in films.” 

The worst earthquake ever recorded took place in Shansi, north-central China, on January 24 1556. It killed more than 830,000 people.

The worst earthquake in modern times happened on July 27 1976 in T'ang-shan, China. It destroyed 20 square miles near the capital city of Beijing, killing an estimated 242,000 people and injuring a further 600,000.

Although notable for the massive loss of life, the two Chinese earthquakes were not necessarily the strongest ever recorded. 

“Historically, the largest earthquake measured on the Richter Scale was the 1960 Chile earthquake, which measured 9.5 on the scale,” says Dr Abbas.

“It cost the lives of around 1,900 people either directly or due to ensuing tsunami waves as far as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.” 

In 2011, one of the largest earthquakes ever measured (9.0 on the Richter scale) struck in Japan near the east coast of Honshu. At least 15,703 people were killed and a further 4,647 were unaccounted for.

“The Japan earthquake showed that even the best prepared countries can be caught out,” says Dr Abbas. 

“Predicting exactly when the next earthquake will hit is out of reach. As Chaos Theory tells us, it is just not feasible to predict as the earthquake system is highly non-linear and sensitive to small changes in initial conditions, which leads to numerous possible predictions.

“This is the same reason why weather forecasts cannot be reliable beyond the three-to-five day window. This is known as the ‘butterfly effect’. The sensitivity of chaotic systems to small changes, even as small as a butterfly wing flapping, can affect the exact time or path of hurricanes.”
 
Dr Abbas says that our knowledge of earthquakes has improved vastly over the years. Resilient structural systems in buildings that can absorb energy and reduce damage due to earthquakes are widely available, preventing catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure damage.  

“Isolation and damping systems exist as well as ductile solutions such as steel and reinforced concrete frames which can be designed to absorb energies released by earth tremors,” he says. 

“However, many developing countries lack the resources to educate and build the skills necessary to implement latest methods and technologies.” 

Remembering the contributions, and passion, of Charles Richter should be remembered. The usefulness of his Richter scale will live on – loved by the press, the movies, and the real-life experts keeping an eye on the earth’s secret life below the crust.