10 Facts About The Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960


The 1960 Valdivia earthquake struck Chile on the afternoon of 22nd May 1960, causing widespread damage with Valdivia being the most affected city. Also known as the Great Chilean earthquake, it was a 9.5 MW earthquake making it the most powerful ever recorded till date. The tremor triggered a giant tsunami which caused destruction and deaths as far away as Japan, around a day later. Know about the cause, effects, damage and death toll of the 1960 earthquake in Chile through these 10 interesting facts.


#1 The Great Chilean earthquake was a Megathrust earthquake

Subduction is a process that occurs at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates due to the movement of one plate under another. Regions where it occurs are known as subduction zones. Subduction zones produce the strongest earthquakes on earth as their structure allows more stress to accumulate before the energy is released. Earthquakes occurring at subduction zones are known as megathrust earthquakes and nine of the ten most powerful earthquakes in the twentieth century were megathrust, including the 1960 Chile earthquake.

Diagram explaining Subduction
Diagram explaining Subduction which is responsible for Megathrust earthquakes


#2 It was caused due to the subduction of Nazca Plate under the South American Plate

The South American Plate is a tectonic plate which includes the continent of South America and a sizable region of the Atlantic Ocean seabed. The Nazca Plate is an oceanic tectonic plate in the eastern Pacific Ocean basin off the west coast of South America. The Chile earthquake of 1960 was caused by the release of mechanical stress due to the subduction of the Nazca Plate under the South American Plate along the Chile-Peru Trench, which has been the cause of many other earthquakes too.

Diagram of Nazca Plate subduction
Diagram of Nazca Plate subducting beneath the South American plate


#3 It was preceded by three earthquakes known as the 1960 Concepción earthquakes

Before the Great Chilean earthquake, three earthquakes struck Chile which were a fore-shock to the main event and are known as the 1960 Concepción earthquakes. The first Concepción earthquake struck at 06:02 on 21st May 1960. It had a magnitude of 8.1, lasted for 35 seconds and destroyed a third of the buildings in the city of Concepción in Chile. The second earthquake happened the following day at 06:32 and had a magnitude of 6.8, while the third was sized 7.9 and happened at 14:55 on 22nd May, just 15 minutes before the Valdivia earthquake.

Map of Chile
Map of Chile


#4 The epicenter of the 1960 Valdivia earthquake was near Lumaco

The epicenter of the 1960 Valdivia earthquake lay around 100 miles of the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean. It was near the town of Lumaco, which is around 570 km south of the Chilean capital Santiago. The focus of the earthquake was relatively shallow at 33 km, as other earthquakes in the region are known to reach depths of 70 km. Focus is the point where an earthquake originates while epicenter is the point on Earth’s surface directly above the focus.

Map of the 1960 Valdivia Earthquake
Map of the Chile Earthquake of 1960


#5 The most affected city in the earthquake was Valdivia

The Great Chilean earthquake occurred at 15:11 on 22nd May 1960. It lasted for 11 to 13 minutes and affected all of Chile between Talca and Chiloé Island, an area more than 400,000 square kilometers. The towns of Valdivia and Puerto Montt suffered the maximum damage. The electricity and water systems of Valdivia were totally destroyed; and around 20,000 people were left homeless due to the destruction of approximately 40 percent of the houses in the town. The port of Puerto Montt collapsed. The train station and numerous buildings in the town were destroyed.

A Valdivia street after the 1960 earthquake
A Valdivia street after the 1960 earthquake


#6 The earthquake caused tsunamis which were primarily responsible for the damage

Though the tremor caused significant damage, it was the resulting tsunamis or high waves which were responsible for major destruction. The tsunami affected southern Chile, Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia and the Aleutian Islands. Waves as high as 10.7 meters (35 ft) were recorded 10,000 kilometers from the epicenter, and as far away as Japan and the Philippines. 2 million people were left homeless due to the destruction caused by the 1960 Valdivia earthquake and the resultant landslides and tsunamis.


#7 The Valdivia earthquake tsunami hit Japan around a day later and killed 138 people

The Chilean coast was severely battered by the localized tsunamis which reached a height up to 25 m (82 ft) and caused numerous fatalities. The main tsunami raced across the Pacific Ocean and when it reached Hawaii, the waves still had a max height of 10.6 m (35 ft). They killed 61 people and caused $24 million in damage at Hilo Bay on the main island of Hawaii. Waves, as high as 5.5 m (18 ft), struck the Japanese island of Honshu around 22 hours after the earthquake, killing 138 people and destroying 1600 homes. Another 32 people were dead or missing in the Philippines after the tsunami hit those islands.

Valdivia earthquake tsunami in Japan
A wave of the tsunami of Great Chilean earthquake pours into Onagawa, Japan


#8 Waves set off by it bounced back and forth across the Pacific for a week

The waves set off by the Great Chilean earthquake bounced back and forth across the Pacific Ocean for a week. Aftershocks were recorded for around a month after the main tremor. On 24 May, 38 hours after the 1960 Valdivia earthquake, the Cordón-Caulle volcano in Los Lagos region of Chile erupted after nearly 40 years of inactivity. Some seismologists believe the eruption was linked to the Valdivia earthquake.

Map of 1960 Valdivia tsunami
Map of the travel time of the 1960 Valdivia tsunami across the Pacific


#9 The 1960 earthquake of Chile caused 1,000 to 6,000 deaths

The death toll and the monetary losses caused by the earthquake cannot be stated with certainty. The monetary cost of the disaster has been estimated in the range of US$400 million to US$800 million (2.9 to 5.8 billion in 2011, after adjusting for inflation). Studies have estimated the total number of fatalities at 1,655, 2231, 3000, 5700 and even 6,000. The death toll for the 1960 Valdivia earthquake was less considering its magnitude. This was because it occurred in the afternoon, many of the structures in affected areas were earthquake-resistant and the fore-shocks made the population wary.

Eruption of Cordon Caulle
Eruption of Cordon Caulle following the 1960 Valdivia earthquake


#10 The Great Chilean earthquake is the most powerful earthquake ever recorded

The moment magnitude scale (MW) is used to measure the size of earthquakes in terms of energy released. It is the most commonly used scale to measure medium to large earthquake magnitudes. An increase of two points on the scale corresponds to 1000 times increase in energy. Thus an MW 7.0 quake contains 1000 times the energy of a 5.0 MW quake and about 32 times of a 6.0 MW quake. Great Chilean earthquake measured 9.5 on the MW making it the largest earthquake of the twentieth Century and the most powerful ever recorded. Among recorded earthquakes, it is followed by 9.2MW 1964 Alaska earthquake and (9.1–9.3) MW Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004.

Most powerful earthquakes Chart
Chart of the most powerful earthquakes recorded in history


The 2010 Chile Earthquake

Chile was struck again by a powerful earthquake of 8.8MW in 2010. It was the fifth largest earthquake ever to be recorded by a seismograph and ranks thirteen in the overall list including estimates. The 2010 quake was also megathrust and caused by the subducting Nazca plate under the South American plate. It damaged 370,000 homes in Chile and at least 525 people were killed. The cost of the earthquake was estimated between 4 and 7 billion dollars.

23 thoughts on “10 Facts About The Great Chilean Earthquake of 1960”

    • It is very scary, horrifying actually. I am from Chile and lived through the 1985 and 75 earthquakes. Every visit to Chile there is a small one. I cannot describe the feeling “is this the one”.


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