I well remember shortly after arriving in Beijing in 2011 visiting the Olympic Constructional Exhibition Hall – located in the Olympic Park – showing off the story of the building of the Olympic Village. In true Chinese style there was a plethora of models on display everywhere, as well as items such as jackets and helmets worn by the construction workers, and endless photographs, including just about anything and everything you could possibly want to know about the subject. It was brilliant.
But all that has changed.
Now, the floor area of the exhibition has been halved with most of the beautiful models of the individual stadiums removed. Instead, the space has been taken up by a new Earthquake and Buildings Science Education Exhibition Hall.
The building itself has been renamed the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall.
China, of course, has seen its fair share of death and destruction from earthquakes over the centuries – after all, much of the country sits on the junctions of several tectonic plates, including the Pacific, the Eurasian and the Indian Ocean plates, with at least 495 faults crisscrossing its terrain.
In fact, scientists have determined that at least 130 of these fault lines lie beneath major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, albeit that 80 of them are currently inactive. And this is probably why – perhaps late in the day, some might argue – an education hall has been created to educate the masses what to do in the event of an earthquake.
Not that the masses appear to be crowding in to this exhibition…
It was only a few years ago, of course, that Beijing's Olympic chiefs were assuring foreigners planning to visit China for the August 2008 Games that the country was safe – despite a magnitude 8 earthquake that killed over 69,000 people in Sichuan Province three months earlier. The Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games said visitors “should not be concerned about natural disasters… since earthquakes had been taken into account when building the 31 venues in Beijing”.
As of May 2016, China has been improving its seismic early warning system to issue alerts five to ten seconds after tremors occur, and fast early warning systems are being tried out in Beijing, Sichuan and Guangdong with more monitoring stations. China's national earthquake monitoring network, composed of 32 regional monitoring centres and 1,098 observation stations, leads the world… according to Chinese scientists.
But although these centres can monitor quakes as slight as magnitude one, imminent quakes within three months can hardly be forecast at all, they admit.
Here’s an aerial picture of the Sichuan quake area on May 12, 2008. 69,227 people were killed, 374,643 were injured and 17,923 were reported missing.
Though the overall exhibition is quite small, there are some interesting photos of the aftermath of some of the quakes. Here’s what Tangshan, Hebei Province, looked like after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake which occurred on July 28, 1976. 242,769 people were killed and 164,000 were seriously hurt.
Although Beijing has only suffered minor earthquakes in recent years this 7.8 magnitude quake also wrecked tens of thousands of buildings in the capital 140 kms away.
Now, scientists are saying there is a high likelihood of an earthquake occurring in Tianjin, located only 100 kms from Beijing. Tianjin lies on top of the Tangshan-Hejian-Cixian fault that has been the site of 15 devastating earthquakes in the past 1,000 years, including the 1976 Tangshan quake.
To assess future seismic hazards, scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Chinese Earthquake Administration have reconstructed, for the first time, a spatial pattern of major earthquakes along the fault. Their reconstruction is based on a detailed analysis of the available instrumental records in the past few decades; historical records in the past 4,000 years; and pre-historical records tracing back nearly 11,000 years.
A surprising finding was the existence of a 160-km seismic gap centered at Tianjin, which has not been ruptured by any major earthquake for more than 8,400 years. As the average earthquake cycle is about 8,700 years, the authors suggest that the 160-km Tianjin fault segment, capable of generating a devastating earthquake similar to the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, may be the next to rupture.
Not surprising, therefore, that an education centre showing people what to do in the event of an earthquake is well overdue.
As you enter this new exhibition, you can experience what it feels like to be in an earthquake. Sixteen times a day you have the opportunity to experience the simulation of seismic waves at three intensities. An advisory notice says “people with heart disease, hypertension, anaemia or cervical spondylosis, pregnant women and drunken people shall not take part in” – presumably, I am guessing, if you’re drunk you wouldn’t know there was anything untoward?
There are Q&A boards on display, mainly about getting under a table as soon as you can.
And just in case you wondered what all the fuss is about, there are also plenty of timelines giving details about earthquakes in Beijing itself.
As well as the Experience House, there is also a Power of Nature 270 degree movie experience, showing “the real power of a variety of natural disasters” (eight times a day); a Rainstorm Experience House (twice a day) to let you experience a “real” typhoon (you are asked to place the raincoat after it into the dressing room, which makes it sound like you are going to get wet!); and a “4D Movie Hall” showing a movie about Earthquakes (lasting about 10minutes). “It will show you the phenomena of pre-seismic, co-seismic and post-seismic respectively,” it says, before adding somewhat alarmingly “If you have any discomfort during the movie please put your hands up.”
But I notice it also asks you to “Please return the 3D glasses to the staff after the movie”, making me wonder what ever happened to the fourth dimension…