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1960 Valdivia earthquake

1960 Valdivia earthquake
Date May 22, 1960 (1960-05-22)[1]
Duration 11–13 minutes - 1000km(+ plus) est rupture[3]
Magnitude 9.5 Mw [3]
Depth 33 km
Epicenter Lumaco, Chile
Areas affected Chile, Argentina, United States, Japan, Philippines
Tsunami Yes
Foreshocks Yes 8.6 & 8.1 highest
Aftershocks Yes
Casualties 2,230–6,000[3]

The 1960 Valdivia earthquake (Spanish: Terremoto de Valdivia) or Great Chilean earthquake (Gran terremoto de Chile) of Sunday, 22 May 1960 was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, rating a 9.5 on the moment magnitude scale. It occurred in the afternoon (19:11 GMT, 15:11 local time), and lasted approximately 10 minutes. The resulting tsunami affected southern Chile, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia and the Aleutian Islands.

The epicenter was near Lumaco (see map), approximately 570 kilometres (350 mi) south of Santiago, with Valdivia being the most affected city. The tremor caused localised tsunamis that severely battered the Chilean coast, with waves up to 25 metres (82 ft). The main tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean and devastated Hilo, Hawaii. Waves as high as 10.7 metres (35 ft) were recorded 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) from the epicenter, and as far away as Japan and the Philippines.

The death toll and monetary losses arising from such a widespread disaster are not certain.[4] Various estimates of the total number of fatalities from the earthquake and tsunamis have been published, with the United States Geological Survey citing studies with figures of 2,231, 3,000, or 5,700 killed[5] and another source using an estimate of 6,000 dead.[3] Different sources have estimated the monetary cost ranged from US$400 million to 800 million[5] (or $3.19 billion to $6.38 billion today, adjusted for inflation).


  • Earthquake development 1
    • Concepción earthquakes 1.1
    • Valdivia earthquake 1.2
    • Tectonic interpretation 1.3
  • Natural disasters triggered 2
    • Landslides 2.1
    • Tsunami 2.2
    • Seiches 2.3
    • Riñihuazo flood 2.4
    • Cordón Caulle eruption 2.5
  • Consequences and response 3
    • Urban impact 3.1
      • Valdivia 3.1.1
      • Osorno 3.1.2
      • Puerto Montt 3.1.3
    • Impact in the countryside 3.2
    • Creation of emergency committee 3.3
    • Human sacrifice 3.4
  • Previous and later earthquakes 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Earthquake development

Global seismic release from 1906 to 2005, the graph shows that almost 25% of the world earthquake energy in a century was concentrated in the Great Chilean Earthquake alone.

The 1960 Chilean earthquakes were a sequence of strong earthquakes that affected Chile between 21 May and 6 June 1960. The first was the 8.1 Mw Concepción earthquake, and the strongest was the Valdivia earthquake.

Concepción earthquakes

The first Battle of Iquique memorial holiday to oversee the emergency assistance efforts. The second and third Concepción earthquakes occurred the next day at 06:32 UTC-4 and 14:55 UTC-4, on 22 May. These earthquakes formed a southward migrating foreshock sequence to the main Valdivia shock, which occurred just 15 minutes after the third event.[6]

Valdivia earthquake

The Valdivia earthquake occurred at 15:11 UTC-4 on 22 May, and affected all of Chile between Talca and Chiloé Island, more than 400,000 square kilometres (150,000 sq mi). Coastal villages, such as Toltén, disappeared. At Corral, the main port of Valdivia, the water level rose 4 m (13 ft) before it began to recede. At 16:20 UTC-4, a wave of 8 m (26 ft) struck the Chilean coast, mainly between Concepción and Chiloé. Another wave measuring 10 m (33 ft) was reported ten minutes later.

A Valdivia street after the earthquake of 22 May 1960

Hundreds of people were already reported dead by the time the tsunami struck. One ship, Canelos, starting at the mouth of Valdivia River, sank after being moved 1.5 km (0.93 mi) backward and forward in the river; its mast is still visible from the road to Niebla.[7]

A number of Spanish-colonial fortifications were completely destroyed. Soil subsidence also destroyed buildings, deepened local rivers, and created wetlands in places like the Río Cruces and Chorocomayo, a new aquatic park north of the city. Extensive areas of the city were flooded. The electricity and water systems of Valdivia were totally destroyed. Witnesses reported underground water flowing up through the soil. Despite the heavy rains of 21 May, the city was without a water supply. The river turned brown with sediment from landslides and was full of floating debris, including entire houses. The lack of potable water became a serious problem in one of Chile's rainiest regions.

The earthquake did not strike all the territory with the same strength; measured with the Mercalli scale, tectonically depressed areas suffered heavier damage. The two most affected areas were Valdivia and Puerto Octay, near the northwest corner of Llanquihue Lake. Puerto Octay was the center of a north-south elliptical area in the Central Valley, where the intensity was at the highest outside the Valdivia Basin.[8] East of Puerto Octay, in a hotel in Todos los Santos Lake, piles of plates were reported to have remained in place.[8]

Two days after the earthquake Cordón Caulle, a volcanic vent close to Puyehue volcano, erupted. Other volcanoes may also have erupted, but none was recorded due to the lack of communication in Chile at the time. The relatively low death toll in Chile (estimated at 6,000) is explained in part by the low population density in the region, and by building practices that took into account the area's high geological activity.

Tectonic interpretation

The earthquake was a megathrust earthquake resulting from the release of mechanical stress between the subducting Nazca Plate and the South American Plate, on the Peru–Chile Trench. The focus was relatively shallow at 33 km (21 mi), considering that earthquakes in northern Chile and Argentina may reach depths of 70 km (43 mi). Subduction zones are known to produce the strongest earthquakes on earth, as their particular structure allows more stress to build up before energy is released. Geophysicists consider it a matter of time before this earthquake will be surpassed in magnitude by another. The earthquake's rupture zone was 800 km (500 mi) long, stretching from Arauco (37° S) to Chiloé Archipelago (43° S). The rupture velocity has been estimated as 3.5 km (2.2 mi) per second.[9]

Natural disasters triggered

Effect of the tsunami at Kamaishi, Japan


The earthquake triggered numerous landslides, mainly in the steep glacial valleys of the southern Andes. Within the Andes, most landslides occurred on forested mountain slopes around the Liquiñe-Ofqui Fault. Some of these areas remain sparsely vegetated while others have naturally developed more or less pure stands of Nothofagus dombeyi.[10] These landslides did not cause many fatalities nor significant economic losses because most of the areas were uninhabited, with only minor roads.

One landslide caused destruction and alarm following its blockage of the outflow of Riñihue Lake. About 100 km (62 mi) south of Riñihue Lake, landslides in the mountains around Golgol River caused this river to dam up; when it burst through the earthen dam, it created a flood down to Puyehue Lake.[11] The Golgol landslides destroyed parts of international Route 215-CH, which connects to Bariloche in Argentina through Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass.


Map showing the travel time of the tsunami across the Pacific and beyond. Contours are at one hour intervals. Colour scale shows wave height

Earthquake-induced tsunamis affected southern Chile, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong,[12] eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia and the Aleutian Islands. Some localised tsunamis severely battered the Chilean coast, with waves up to 25 m (82 ft). The main tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean at a speed of several hundred km/h and devastated Hilo, Hawaii, killing 61 people.[13]

The Chilean coast from Mocha Island (38° S)and to Aysén Region (45° S) was devastated by a tsunami. Across southern Chile the tsunami caused a huge loss of life, damage to port infrastructure and the loss of a large number of minor boats. Further north, the port of Talcahuano did not suffer any major damage, only some flooding. Some tugboats and small sailboats were stranded on Rocuant Island near Talcahuano.[14]

After the 21 May Concepción earthquake, people in Ancud sought refuge in boats. A carabinero (police) boat, Gloria, was towing a few of these boats when the second earthquake struck on 22 May. As the sea regressed Gloria became stranded between Cerro Guaiguén and Cochinos Island. The stranded boat was wrecked when a tsunami wave came engulfing it.[14]

The small port of Bahía Mansa had all of its new infrastructure destroyed by the tsunami that reached heights of up to 10 m.a.s.l. in that place. The boat Isabella that was at that time in Bahía Mansa quickly left the port but suffered the loss of its anchors.[14]

In Valdivia River and Corral Bay several vessels were wrecked due to the earthquake, among them Argentina, Canelos, Carlos Haverbeck, Melita and the salvaged remnants of Penco. Canelos was anchored at Corral and filling a cargo of wood and other products destined to northern Chile when the quake struck. The engine of Canelos was warmed up after the earthquake came. After hours of drifting around in Corral Bay and Valdivia River the ship was wrecked and abandoned by its crew at 18.00 PM. Two men on board of Canelos died. As of 2000 the remnants of Canelos are still visible. Santiago, another ship anchored at Corral at the time of the quake, managed to leave Corral in a bad state but was wrecked off the coast of Mocha Island on 24 May.[14] The schooner La Milagrosa departed from Queule on 22 May to load a cargo of Fitzroya wood shingles in a small port south of Corral. La Milagrosa was battered by the currents and waves of the tsunami for four days while moving south. Outside Corral the crew rescued six nearly unconscious and dehydrated minors on board of two boats. The boats found were used to navigate in Valdivia River and Corral Bay but had drifted into the high sea.[15]

Hilo, Hawaii, after tsunami

At the coastal town of Queule a carabinero reported hundreds of people to be dead or missing some days after the tsunami. Historians Yoselin Jaramillo and Ismael Basso report that people in Queule decades later know about 50 people to have died because of the earthquake and tsunami.[16]


A seiche of more than 1 metre was observed on Panguipulli Lake following the earthquake.[17]

On 22 May, a seiche occurred also in Nahuel Huapi Lake, on the Argentinean side of the Andes, more than 200 km away from Valdivia. The wave, most likely produced by an earthquake-triggered sediment slide at the lake bottom, killed two people and destroyed a pier in San Carlos de Bariloche city.[18]

Riñihuazo flood

During the Great Chilean earthquake, several landslides west of Tralcán Mountain blocked the outflow of Riñihue Lake (). Riñihue Lake is the lowest of the Seven Lakes chain and receives a constant inflow from the Enco River.[19] The blocked San Pedro River, which drains the lake, passes through several towns before reaching the city of Valdivia near the coast.[20]

Because the San Pedro River was blocked, the water level of Riñihue Lake started to rise quickly. Each meter the water level rose was equivalent to 20 million cubic meters, which meant that 4,800 million cubic meters of water would release into the San Pedro River (easily overpowering its flow capacity of 400 cubic metres (14,000 cu ft) per second if it rose above the final, 24-meter-high dam. This potential disaster would have violently flooded all the settlements along the course of the river in less than five hours, with more dire consequences if the dam suddenly broke.

About 100,000 people lived in the affected zone.[20] Plans were made to evacuate Valdivia, and many people left. To avoid the destruction of the city, several military units and hundreds of workers from ENDESA, CORFO, and MOP started an effort to control the lake.[19] Twenty-seven bulldozers were put into service, but they had severe difficulties moving in the mud near the dams, so dykes had to be constructed with shovels from June onwards.[19] The work was not restricted to the lake; drainages from other parts of the Seven Lakes were dammed to minimize additional flow into Riñihue Lake. These dams were removed later, with the exception of Calafquén Lake, which still retains its dam.

By 23 June, the main dam had been lowered from 24 to 15 m (79 to 49 ft), allowing 3,000 million cubic meters of water to leave the lake gradually, but still with considerable destructive power. The team was led by ENDESA engineer Raúl Sáez.

Cordón Caulle eruption

Eruption of Cordón Caulle following the 1960 Valdivia earthquake
On 24 May, 38 hours after the main shock of the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, Cordón Caulle began a rhyodacitic fissure eruption. Being located between two sparsely populated and isolated Andean valleys, the eruption had few eyewitnesses and received little attention by local media, which was preoccupied with the severe and widespread damage and losses caused by the earthquake.[21] The eruption fed a 5.5 km long and N135° trending fissure where 21 individual vents have been found. These vents produced an output of about 0.25 km3 DRE both in form of lava flows and tephra. The eruption ended on 22 July.[21]

Consequences and response

The destroyed center of Corral in autumn 1960.

Urban impact


It has been estimated that about 40% of the houses in Valdivia were destroyed, leaving 20,000 people homeless.[22] The most affected structures were those built of concrete, which in some cases collapsed completely due to lack of earthquake engineering. Traditional wooden houses fared better; although many were uninhabitable, they did not collapse. Houses built upon tectonically elevated areas suffered considerably less damage compared to those on the lowlands, which absorbed great amounts of energy. Many city blocks with destroyed buildings in the city center remained empty until the 1990s and 2000s, with some of them still used as parking lots. Before the earthquake, some of these blocks had modern concrete buildings built after the Great Valdivia fire of 1909.[23]

In terms of urban development, Valdivia suffered the loss of the minor but significant Cau-Cau bridge, a bridge that has not been rebuilt. The other bridges suffered only minor damage. Land subsidence in Corral Bay improved navigability as shoal banks, produced earlier by sediments from Madre de Dios and other nearby gold mines, sank and were compacted.[8] As the earthquake destroyed Valdivia's flood barriers, general land subsidence exposed new areas to flooding.[24]

The United States quickly set up a field hospital following the earthquake.[25] Aided by the United States, a geological survey of Valdivia was done following the earthquake and resulted in the city's first geological map. Mexico built and donated the public school Escuela México after the earthquake.[25]

The earthquakes damaged an area that had suffered a long period of economic decline, which began with shifts in trade routes, due to the expansion of railroads in southern Chile and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.[23]


Unlike Valdivia, Osorno was saved from major destruction. In Osorno only about 20 houses were totally destroyed, although many firewalls and chimneys collapsed.[26]

Puerto Montt

Puerto Montt, a major city today, had in the early 1960s about 49,500 inhabitants. The bulk of the damages in Puerto Montt were located in the neighborhood of Barrio Modelo and the northern part of Bahía Angelmó where artificial fills subsided.[27]

Impact in the countryside

A destroyed steel factory near Corral - Photo from autumn 1960.

The tsunami that struck the coast of southern Chile destroyed seaside farms, killing numerous livestock and people.[28] Barns and industrial structures were destroyed by the quake.[17][28] The dairy industry was among the few industries of the affected zone that received subsidies and investment after the earthquake.[29] It received state support through a long-term policy after the earthquake.[29]

As a result of the earthquake, an international technological cooperation programme was established in the dairy sector. More specifically, the German and Danish governments helped to create the Centro Tecnológico de la Leche (the Milk Technological Centre) in the Southern University of Chile.[30] The scholar Erik Dahmén believes that the earthquake resulted in a "creative destruction" for farmers of Southern Chile.[29]

The economy of the coastal town of Queule had during the 1950s developed significantly. Its economy based on fishing, agriculture and industry had grown. Queule was connected by road in 1957 to the rest of the country and the town had developed into a balneario. This era of prosperity ended with the 1960 earthquake.[31]

Creation of emergency committee

After the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, a committee was formed to solve problems caused by the earthquake. It continued to operate, to develop approaches for national emergencies. In 1974 it was named ONEMI (Spanish acronym for National Emergency and Information Office) when it was authorized by law as an independent governmental office.

Human sacrifice

In the coastal village Collileufu, native Lafkenches carried out a ritual human sacrifice during the days following the main earthquake. Collileufu, located in the Budi Lake area, south of Puerto Saavedra, was in 1960 highly isolated. The Mapuche spoke primarily Mapudungun. The community had gathered in Cerro La Mesa, while the lowlands were struck by successive tsunamis. Juana Namuncura Añen, a local machi, demanded the sacrifice of the grandson of Juan Painecur, a neighbor, in order to calm the earth and the ocean.[32][33] The victim was 5-year-old José Luis Painecur, an "orphan" (huacho) whose mother had gone to work as domestic worker in Santiago and left her son under the care of her father.[32]

The sacrifice was learned about by authorities after a boy in the commune of Nueva Imperial denounced to local leaders the theft of two horses; these were allegedly eaten during the sacrifice ritual.[32] Two men were charged with the crime of murder and confessed, but later recanted. They were released from jail after 2 years. A judge ruled that those involved had "acted without free will, driven by an irresistible natural force of ancestral tradition." The story was mentioned in a Time magazine article, although with little detail.[34]

Previous and later earthquakes

There is evidence that a similar earthquake and landslide occurred in 1575 in Valdivia.[35] This earthquake was of similar strength and also caused a Riñihuazo. According to the chronicle of Mariño de Lobera, corregidor of Valdivia in 1575, a landslide blocked the outflow of the lagoon of Renigua. Several months later in April, it caused a flood.[36] He said that the Spanish settlers had evacuated and waited on high ground until after the dam burst, but many aboriginals died in the flood waters.[36]

On 27 February 2010 at 03:34 local time an 8.8 magnitude earthquake occurred just to the north (off the coast of the Maule region of Chile, between Concepción and Santiago).[37] This quake was reported to be centered approximately 35 kilometres (22 mi) deep and several miles off shore. This 2010 Chile earthquake may be related or consequential to the 1960 tremor.[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b c
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Gates, Alexander E.; Ritchie, David. (2009). Encyclopedia of Earthquakes and Volcanoes. Ed. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9780816072705. p. 49
  14. ^ a b c d
  15. ^ Jaramillo & Basso 2013, pp. 61–63.
  16. ^ Jaramillo & Basso 2013, p. 64.
  17. ^ a b Rojas, p. 67.
  18. ^ Villarosa, G. et al. (2009). "Origen del tsunami de 1960 en el Lago Nahuel Huapi, Patagonia: Aplicación de técnicas batimétricas y sísmicas de alta resolución". Asoc. Geol. Arg. Rev. 65, 593–597.
  19. ^ a b c Urrutia & Lanza 1993, p. 294.
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ Terremoto de Valdivia, Icarito.
  23. ^ a b Figueroa, Victor; Gayoso, Jorge; Oyarzun, Edgardo; Planas, Lenia. "Investigación aplicada sobre Geografía Urbana: Un caso práctico en la ciudad de Valdivia". Gestion Turistica, UACh.
  24. ^ Rojas, C. "Genesis y manifestación de las inundaciones en el sur de Chile", Observatorio Geográfico de América Latina.
  25. ^ a b López Cárdenas, Patricio. 2009. Las administraciones municipales en la historia de Valdivia. pp. 62–65.
  26. ^ Rojas, p. 68.
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b Rytkönen, P. "Fruits of Capitalism: Modernization of Chilean Agriculture, 1950-2000". Lund Studies in Economic History, 31, p. 132.
  29. ^ a b c Rytkönen, P. "Fruits of Capitalism: Modernization of Chilean Agriculture, 1950-2000". Lund Studies in Economic History, 31, p. 133.
  30. ^ Rytkönen, P. "Fruits of Capitalism: Modernization of Chilean Agriculture, 1950-2000," Lund Studies in Economic History, 31, p. 139.
  31. ^ Jaramillo & Basso 2013, pp. 52-57.
  32. ^ a b c El cristo mapuche se perdió en el mar, El Diario Austral de Valdivia. 23 May 2010.
  33. ^ Tierney, Patrick, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice (1989) ISBN 978-0-14-013974-7
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^ a b Mariño de Lobera, CAPITULO III, Reino de Chile.
  37. ^
  38. ^ Than, Ker (2 March 2010) "Chile Earthquake Altered Earth Axis, Shortened Day". National Geographic News.


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