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A Field Guide to Earthquakes in Chile

On Christmas Day, 2016, the world woke up to the news that yet another dramatic earthquake had hit Chile. Luckily, this one had a happy ending.

When the quake hit off the coast of the main island of Chiloe in southern Chile around 11:22 am on Christmas morning, Chile’s National  Emergency Response and Public Safety office (ONEMI) quickly ordered more than 5,000 people to evacuate the coast and low-lying areas in case the earthquake had triggered a tsunami. Home videos of the quake – which registered as a 7.6 on the Richter scale – showed houses shaking ominously, ceiling lights being jostled around, furniture and decorations shifting as the walls around them moved back and forth, and food displays toppling over in grocery stores.

Thankfully, a few hours after the quake, the tsunami alert was lifted and people were allowed to return home. Apart from some damage to highways and roads, there was no destruction and according to official reports, no one was injured.

Many would say it was a Christmas miracle that a quake this big only had minimal impact and didn’t harm anyone. But it wasn’t just luck.

It comes down to a country and its people being so earthquake-ready, it’s practically in their DNA. In fact, 95% of earthquakes here have no effect on daily life, tourism activities, or result in any damage or loss of life. Chile has been experiencing quakes both big and small since time immeasurable, and to stay safe in a country which is frequently shaken up, Chileans use a combination of safety infrastructure, disaster preparedness, and “keeping your head during a disaster” savvy to deal with big shakes like this one.

How, you may ask? Here’s a brief history of some of Chile’s biggest terremotos, as well as information about why Chile is the epicenter of so much seismic activity and all the ways Chileans are prepared in case of a disaster.

Quellon, Chiloe

Why does Chile experience so many quakes?

In this land of fire and ice, the dynamic and epic landscapes we know and love and that people flock from all over the world to see, were formed and are constantly being altered and influenced by ancient and powerful geological forces.

Chile is located on the tail end of the “Ring of Fire,” a Lord of the Rings-esque name for a geographic circle stretching from New Zealand up through Japan and eastern Russia, and then down the west coast of the Americas to Chile. This ring marks where the outer edge of the Pacific tectonic plate grinds itself against the tectonic plates of the other continents, and the resulting fissures and fault lines build up pressure, which are released through earthquakes and other seismic activity. The “Ring of Fire” is also distinguishable for the heavy presence of volcanoes and volcanic activity along its lines, with Chile being home to roughly 90 active volcanoes alone (don’t worry, they’re not that active.)

Villarrica Volcano

History of Earthquakes in Chile

Records of Chile’s powerful quakes date back to the 1500s, and earthquake preparedness is a key component of the Chilean conscious. Most quakes are very small and have little effect, but the terrifying might of Chile’s largest and most deadly quakes is a constant reminder of the power of this natural mover-and-shaker.

Chile holds the dubious distinction of being the site of the largest earthquake in recorded history, which hit the city of Valdivia in the south of Chile on May 22nd, 1960. Parts of the city were completely leveled by the massive tremors, which clocked in between a 9.4 - 9.6, and the resulting tsunami spread out across the Pacific, hitting as far away as New Zealand. Anywhere between 1,000 - 6,000 people were killed overall around the world.

Another infamous quake hit Chile in February 2010, an 8.8 monster which caused massive damage to cities in the south like Concepcion and nearby infrastructure, left millions without power or water, and killed more than 700 people. The world rallied around Chile as it recovered from the quake, giving aid and donating needed goods.

Valdivia

How Chile Handles Earthquakes

Chileans are old pros at handling their country’s ubiquitous terremotos. Many people, when a quake hits, can even hazard a fairly accurate guess at how big the quake was, and if it’s below a certain level on the Richter scale, most people won’t bother to get up. Often, people can’t even feel the small quakes; they’re just so accustomed to them.

But still, luck favors the prepared, and when it comes to disaster relief, Chile is ready. Across the country, strict building codes and laws require buildings, roads, bridges and other structures to adhere to high standards of disaster-resistant design, using techniques such as shock absorbers at the base of the building, vibration control technology, and cross bracing steel beams to create a structure that will have enough flexibility and stability to withstand the vigorous shakes.  

But preparedness goes beyond infrastructure. Several times a year, coastal cities hold simulation drills so citizens know evacuation routes in case of tsunami. Earthquake drills are also held, and Chile’s emergency response office and teams prep and run practice exercises year-round to be prepared for the worst.

So, you can see that when it comes to earthquakes, Chileans know how to stay safe!