top of page

LNCO: A Language for the Earthquake to Come

The foundations that dig into the steep hillside and the pipes that weave underground passages merely scratch the surface of the faulted landscape underlying the University of Utah. The campus is a façade. Here, a short history of colonial time stretching back less than 200 Christian years lies atop the ancient geologic strata of Basin and Range’s easternmost crack. Not even the descendants of the first Mormon pioneers who crested the mountains with Brigham Young have roots deep enough to remember the last time the Wasatch Fault slipped, circa 900 AD. Who walked here then? Perhaps the ancestors of Utes and Shoshones recall such a tremble. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the memory of the last earthquake that tore across the Salt Lake City segment of the Wasatch Fault disappeared with the Fremont people who left shards of broken pottery in Utah’s desert caves.

In the aftermath of the San Fernando Valley earthquake of 1994, Los Angeles hospitals saw a surge of people with shards of broken glass lodged into their bare feet. The magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck at night. Jolted from their beds, shoeless Angelenos stumbling in the darkness had no defense against the shatters left in the wake of the earthquake.

The Utah Seismic Safety Commission reminds us that “the infrastructure we rely upon can be fragile in ways we may not understand until after it is damaged or disabled in an earthquake.” It is very difficult to know what will happen to a building or a city when an earthquake occurs, especially in a place like Salt Lake City where none of the buildings have ever been tested by a major earthquake. While California has seen over and over what happens to buildings, bridges, and freeways when earthquakes strike, Utah doesn’t have that infrastructural memory. In the absence of an earthquake’s instruction, we rely on models and probabilities.

It wasn’t until 1996 that paleoseismologists published reports projecting the likelihood of a magnitude 7.0 or greater earthquake along the Wasatch Fault, highlighting the likelihood that an earthquake of this scale will soon tear through the University of Utah campus. The seismic codes governing the design and construction of the LNCO (Language & Communication) building are dated a decade prior to these findings and do not reflect such information.

No amount of city, emergency, or household planning can possibly anticipate the disaster scenarios that will mushroom out of a major earthquake. The weather, the exact size and location of the earthquake, the moisture in the soil, and the amount of people in the city can all change the circumstances of a seismic catastrophe for better or worse. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, hit the Bay Area during the World Series—a life-saving coincidence. The game had shifted rush hour earlier in the afternoon, so by the time the magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit, traffic on the fragile freeways was much lighter than normal. Imagine how different an earthquake scenario would play out in Salt Lake City when school is in session versus when it isn’t, during a winter storm, heatw