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Chile Earthquake of 1960

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded struck Chile on May 22, 1960. It was followed by tsunamis and volcanoes.

On the morning of May 21, 1960, Valdivia, Chile, was struck by a magnitude 7.6 earthquake. That quake killed several people and caused significant damage, but proved to be only a foreshock. At least two more tremors were felt before 3:11 p.m. on May 22, when about 150,000 square miles of Chilean coastline were shaken by an earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter Scale (initial reports indicating a magnitude of 9.5 were later revised). Valdivia bore the brunt of this quake as well, as did the town of Puerto Montt. Aftershocks, many of magnitude 7.0 or greater, continued to be felt in Chile until November. Many areas that escaped direct damage from the earthquakes were hit by massive landslides.

Map showing the epicenter of the Chilean earthquake.
map showing the epicenter of the Chilean earthquake

A man prays in a Valdivia church destroyed by the earthquake of May 21.
Valdivian man praying in a damaged church

A man walks down a devastated street in Valdivia after the May 22 earthquake.
Validivia street after the earthquake

Earthquake survivors in Puerto Montt await news of other members of their families.
survivors in Puerto Montt awaits news of loved ones

The devastation caused by the foreshocks and main earthquake was significant, but worse was yet to come. Centered about 100 miles off the coast, the quake spawned a series of tsunami waves, with a 26-foot-tall wave wiping out the port of Corral about an hour after the major earthquake and another 33-foot wave hitting the coast about ten minutes after that. It is estimated that this wave alone killed more than 1,000 people, including many who thought they had moved safely to high ground.

Corral in the autumn of 1960, months after being devastated by two tsunamis.
devastated center of Corral

Corral steel factory destroyed by tsunamis

The tsunami waves spawned by the Chilean earthquake traveled up the South, Central, and North American coasts as far north as Canada. Fortunately for most of those areas the waves hit at an angle that lessened their impact. Coastal areas across the Pacific Ocean were not so lucky, however. Waves up to 35 feet high hit Hawaii, and 18-foot waves made it all the way to Japan and the Philippines. New Zealand and Australia were also hit by tsunami waves, but neither received any significant damage.

Map showing intensity of tsunami waves generated by the earthquake.
map showing intensity of tsunami waves generated by the earthquake

Although it hit the coast at a near-right angle, the tsunami still caused major flooding in Crescent City, California.
Crescent City, California, after being hit by a tsunami

The tsunami wave reached a height of 35 feet before it crashed into and devastated Hilo, Hawaii, over 6,600 miles away from the epicenter of the Chilean earthquake.
Hilo, Hawaii, after the 1960 tsunami

This ship was thrown onto a house by an 18-foot tsunami that hit Ofunato Harbor, Japan, over 10,000 miles away from the Chilean earthquake epicenter.
ship on top of a house in Japan

Two days after the earthquake Cordón Caulle, a volcanic vent close to Puyehue Volcano erupted. It continued to spew ash and lava until July 22. Fortunately the volcano was (and still is) isolated, so no damage resulted. Other volcanic eruptions were also reported, but most were in sparsely populated areas and caused little damage.

Eruption of Cordón Caulle.
eruption of Cordon Caulle

The earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides killed an estimated 1,655 Chileans and injured another 3,000. Damage was estimated at $550 million. Tsunamis caused 61 deaths and $75 million damage in Hawaii; 138 deaths and $50 million damage in Japan, 32 deaths in the Philippines, and $500,000 damage to the west coast of the United States.

Britannica Book of the Year 1961 Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 1961

Extreme Science
U.S. Geological Survey


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This page was last updated on 05/17/2017.