How a massive steel ball protected Taiwan’s highest skyscraper 7.4 Mag Earthquake

When a powerful 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck Taiwan on Wednesday, those inside the towering Taipei 101 skyscraper felt only a gentle swaying motion. This relative stillness amidst the violent tremors was thanks to an ingenious engineering solution – a 730-ton steel pendulum suspended at the very core of the building.

The bright yellow sphere, known as a tuned mass damper, hung between the skyscraper’s top floors and moved in opposition to the seismic forces. This counteracted much of the intense shaking, preventing the structure from violently swaying and protecting both occupants and the building itself.

“It was swinging a lot during the quake, but the movement inside felt quite mild,” said Maggie Chen, an office worker on the 85th floor. “Without that damper, I can’t imagine how scary it would have been up here.”

Footage from security cameras outside clearly captured the damper’s effectiveness. While other buildings in the Taipei skyline visibly shuddered, the iconic pagoda-shaped Taipei 101 remained virtually motionless despite being over 1,600 feet tall.

This tuned mass damper is the world’s largest and heaviest, specifically engineered for Taipei 101 when it was completed in 2004 as the globe’s tallest building at the time. The structure’s resilience allowed it to easily outperform most towers during the strongest temblor to hit Taiwan in over two decades.

“Having the damper is a key reason this building performed so well and gave its occupants protection from the full force of the quake,” said structural engineer Wei Chien Liu. “It represents cutting-edge seismic design for skyscrapers in earthquake-prone regions.”

Taiwan lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, one of the most seismically turbulent zones on Earth. The island has endured many major quakes, including a devastating 7.6 magnitude tremor in 1999 that killed over 2,400 people.

In the wake of that disaster, Taipei 101’s engineers prioritized quake-proofing with tuned mass dampers and other advanced stabilizing features. This included embedding the building’s foundation into the bedrock itself using massive piles driven up to 100 feet deep.

“It’s essentially nailed to the tectonic plate below,” explained Liu. “So the entire structure moves in unison with the earth’s movements instead of shaking erratically.”

Skyscraper dampers like this steel pendulum help counteract lateral forces through an inertial principle – the heavy mass moves in opposition to a building’s motion, negating up to 40% of the swaying. This protects structural integrity and prevents the nauseating sensations typically experienced by those inside during major quakes.

While Taiwan incorporates these systems in many newer high-rises, Taipei 101’s damper is one of the few left openly displayed rather than hidden within the infrastructure. This striking yellow sphere has become an iconic symbol of the building and a popular tourist attraction at its indoor observatory deck.

“Seeing it move is really surreal and drives home the incredible forces involved in a major earthquake,” said visitor David Cho after the quake. “I’m just grateful it was there to keep all of us safe.”

As the risks of earthquakes, hurricanes, and other hazards increase due to climate change, experts emphasize the importance of such damper systems in tall building design worldwide. The tuned mass damper has proved invaluable in protecting not just Taipei 101, but lives across Taiwan’s capital city.

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