Chile is located in the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, which produces 80 percent of Earth’s earthquakes.
In the central and southern parts of the country last Saturday there was an earthquake of 8.8 degrees on the Richter scale, one of the seven strongest of all time, and similar in magnitude to the one that rocked Ecuador on January 31st 1906 and Alaska on March 28th 1964, according to statistics geological prestigious scientific institutions.
The interaction between the tectonic plates of Nazca and South America produces a destructive earthquake every 10 years, a dozen small earthquakes per day and about 3 500 earthquakes a year, according to the Institute of Geophysics, University of Chile.
In the nineteenth century the devastating earthquakes in Chile were: November 19th 1822, Valparaiso, February 1835, Concepción, which included a violent earthquake, October 5th 1859 in Copiapo, included a tsunami; August 13th, 1868 and May 19th 1877, which triggered two tsunamis that devastated Arica, a port-city in Northern Chile.
Other significant events for their violence, human and material damages took place in the South American country in 1906, 1920, 1934, 1939 and 1949, in a long list collected in scientific Chilean statistics.
But in particular, on May 22nd 1960, also a Saturday, at 19:11 UTC (coordinated world time), 16:11 local time, seismographs marked an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.8 on the Richter scale (open) which was a world record for such events as earthquakes, so far not surpassed.
The earthquake released the largest amount of energy ever recorded in an event of this kind, with a fault rupture of 1000 kilometers and displacement of 20 meters, which changed the geography of a thousand square kilometers of coastline.
The tremor was felt in different parts of the planet and produced a tsunami that hit several towns along the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii and Japan, and the eruption of the Puyehue volcano. Nearly three thousand people died and more than two million were affected, Ercilla magazine reported in its issue of June 15th 1960.
Tragedy after tragedy
A disaster of similar origin caused by an earthquake of lesser intensity, but catastrophic consequences, had taken place the previous day. Before dawn Friday, May 21st 1960, at 6:02 local time, southern Chile awoke with a strong shudder of the earth's crust.
There were then 12 epicenters off the coast of Arauco Peninsula, Bío Bío region nowadays, with a magnitude of 7.75 degrees on the Richter scale, mainly affecting the cities of Concepcion, Talcahuano, Lebu, Chillán and Angol. A few minutes later, a second similar tremor shook the area and collapsed buildings damaged by the first tremor.
While Chile organized assistance to the inhabitants of Conception and nearby cities, a tragedy even worse was lurking:
At 14:55, local time on Saturday May 22nd 1960, there was an earthquake which maximum magnitude exceeded the 9.8 degrees on the Richter scale and lasted about 10 minutes.
Subsequent studies argued that this movement was in fact a succession of more than 37 earthquakes whose epicenters spread over a 1 350 kilometers.
The cataclysm devastated the entire territory of Chile between Talca and Chiloé, meaning, more 400 000 square kilometers, according to an article in the local daily El Austral de Valdivia, edition of September 25th 2005.
The most affected area was Valdivia and its surroundings. Much of the city buildings collapsed immediately, while the Calle-Calle River overflowed and flooded the downtown. In the nearby port of Corral, sea level had risen about four meters before dragging them off the ships harbored in the bay.
A few minutes later, a 8-meter-high wave struck the Chilean coast between Concepción and Chiloe, at over 150 kilometers per hour. Hundreds more died when trapped by the tsunami that completely destroyed several villages.
Ten minutes later, the sea retreated dragging the ruins of the coastal towns to again hit with a wave over 10 feet high.
A wave train began to cross the Pacific Ocean and nearly 15 hours after the quake, a 10-meter-high tsunami struck the island of Hilo on the Hawaiian archipelago, over 10 thousand kilometers away from the epicenter of the earthquake, killing 61 people.
Similar events were reported in Japan, the Philippines, Rapa Nui, California, USA, New Zealand, Samoa and the Marquesas Islands.
But another tragedy besiege the survivors and it was blocking of the interconnection of the Riñihue Lake with its drainage, by the landslide caused by the earthquake, which created an unsafe dam, which by breaking his makeshift dam could destroy several cities downstream.
In what became known as the “Epic of Riñihue” for two months, hundreds of builders, supported by battalions of soldiers, struggled to control the drainage of the lake and avoid the damage, according to a report published by Ercilla magazine.
The Chileans have been challenged again today by Nature. Again the struggle for life becomes the reason for these dark days; they are without doubt better prepared. Let´s follow the events carefully.