Urban Engineering's Seismic Problem

Tarek Abdoun works on ways to build safe infrastructure on lands that can collapse, erode, or flood at any moment

  • It was a rare, destructive earthquake in Cairo that jolted Tarek Abdoun’s interest in building infrastructure that can stand up to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
  • His research at NYU Abu Dhabi sheds light on questions that have puzzled earthquake engineers and designers for a long time.

Governments throughout the world are faced with the task of providing the necessities of contemporary, urban life to an ever growing number of people. Housing, public transportation, and clean water all require extensive infrastructure, and as cities expand in geographic size, some of this infrastructure will be constructed in areas that are difficult to build on.

“If you look at ancient cities, people living in those times always started by building on the best land available,” said Tarek Abdoun, Global Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering at NYU Abu Dhabi. “Today if you look at cities in Japan, or a city like Dubai, you’ll see that many new buildings are built on reclaimed soil,” which poses grand challenges for engineers.

In his research, Abdoun is working to determine how sites and structures will respond to hazards — like floods and earthquakes — so that civil engineers can design infrastructure projects that are both safe and cost effective. “We have to explore building on new areas and develop innovative engineering techniques to deal with the problems that will arise,” Abdoun said. “This includes utilizing the best computational power, instrumentation, construction technology, and doing this in an economical way.”



Today if you look at cities in Japan, or a city like Dubai, you’ll see that many new buildings are built on reclaimed soil.

Tarek Abdoun, Global Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering

Abdoun has been interested in civil engineering from the time he was young, but it was a natural disaster, an earthquake that struck his hometown of Cairo in 1992, that drew him to study how seismic events affect infrastructure. The quake, which was a rare occurrence in Cairo, destroyed or damaged hundreds of buildings throughout the city. Thousands were left homeless and were uncertain if they could return to their homes. Abdoun was working as a teaching assistant at Cairo University at the time, and with his background in structural engineering, he was sent out into the city to assess buildings that were damaged by the quake.

"After the earthquake there were people out in the streets panicking."

"They saw cracks in their buildings, but they didn't know if the damage was structural or not," Abdoun said. This event encouraged Abdoun to study geotechnical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York, where he received his master's and PhD.

In a recent paper, Abdoun and his colleagues investigated two separate earthquakes: one that struck the Californian Imperial Valley in 2010, and another that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. Though the sites had similar geological characteristics, and the seismic shocks that passed through them were nearly identical in their magnitude, the earth responded differently in each instance. The site in the Imperial Valley remained relatively stable during its quake, while the site in the Bay Area experienced a phenomenon called soil “liquefaction,” which can cause extensive damage to infrastructure built on the site.

"This paper looked at case histories where very different behavior in the field was observed under similar conditions," Abdoun said. "As an engineer, if I'm getting two different outcomes from the same scenario, I don't know which one to design for. That's a big challenge."

Through their research, Abdoun and his colleagues determined that the histories of the sites were substantially different. The site in the Imperial Valley had experienced high seismic activity — 60 to 70 small quakes — over a period of about 100 years, while the site in the Bay Area had seen only about two quakes of the same magnitude in that time period. “This research affects practice in the real world and it sheds light on questions that have been puzzling engineers and designers for a long time,” Abdoun said.

The paper, published in the Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, won the 2018 Thomas A. Middlebrooks award from the American Society of Civil Engineers, which is given to the best geotechnical paper of the year. This is the second year in a row a paper co-authored by Abdoun has won the award.

Abdoun is also the recipient of the “Commander’s Award for Public Service with accompanying medal,” one of the highest awards given by the US Army to civilians who provided outstanding civil service. This award was given in appreciation of his contribution to recovery and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.