Natural disasters in Chile: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Chile is a very attractive tourist destination, and the number of people coming here on holiday is constantly growing. Tourists are drawn to the country by its nature and marvelous mountains, beaches, islands, jungles, and ancient ruins. It is an ideal country for long tours, hiking, and other active holidays. Tourists should find out in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing about its potential, you can prepare for it.
Climatic Features of Chile
Chile is located on the west coast of South America. The country stretches in a narrow strip from north to south, reaching the extreme point of the continent – the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.
This location is a consequence of the fact that the climate of Chile consistently changes from arid tropical to maritime temperate, almost subantarctic. In the north of Chile, we find lifeless deserts where precipitation occurs once every 10 years, and in the south, we find snowy winters and penguins establishing colonies on the coast.
Along the coast of Chile from south to north and further along Peru runs the cold Peruvian Current, also called the Humboldt Current. This current cools the ocean waters even in summer and minimizes rainfall.
The average width of the country in the direction from the ocean is only 177 kilometers, which makes its relief rather monotonous – it is an endless range of mountains. The Andes in the area of Chile are quite high, and in the country, there are more than a dozen peaks above 6 thousand meters. Many of them are covered with glaciers in both winter and summer, and there are even ski resorts operating there.
The collision of continental and oceanic plates in the area of Chile leads to frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
Chile also includes a number of archipelagos and islands of the Pacific Ocean. They have their own climate and hazards, such as Easter Island, located 3,500 kilometers from the mainland.
Natural Factors That Can Cause a Natural Disaster in Chile
- Seismic activity: Very high due to the collision of the continental and oceanic lithospheric plates. The country is constantly at risk of a major earthquake, with hundreds of small earthquakes occurring every year.
- Volcanism: Chile has many dormant and active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. However, in most cases, the eruptions of local volcanoes are not distinguished by high intensity.
- Mountains: High mountains covered with glaciers are a constant spring of danger. They can experience rockfalls, landslides, mudslides, rockfalls, and avalanches.
- Long coastlines: Possible springs of danger from storms and hurricanes. Earthquakes sometimes occur on the seabed, resulting in tsunamis.
- High rainfall: Can cause severe flooding, usually in the form of mudslides – torrents of mud and water that sweep away everything in their path. The central parts of the country are most affected by this disaster.
- High forest cover and droughts: The combination of these factors often leads to forest fires on mountain slopes.
The Importance of Studying the History of Natural Disasters
Studying the history of natural disasters is crucial information to acquire before traveling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may await you will not only help you choose the right place but also the time and season of the year when the threat of being at the epicenter of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that more rainfall in the resorts of the north of the country falls between June and August, often leading to floods and mudslides, you can choose a different time to travel to these regions of Chile.
In this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in the country in the past.
The entire west coast of South America belongs to seismically active regions of the planet, being part of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. Seismic activity here is caused by the collision of two lithospheric plates, leading to constant tremors. However, really strong earthquakes occur only once every few years.
30 August 1420, Atacama
The first records of earthquakes in Chile date back to 1420 when the Americas had not yet been discovered by Europeans. There is no information about casualties and destruction, but it was established that the magnitude of the tremors exceeded 9.5 points, and the tsunami was felt even in Japan.
19 November 1822, Valparaiso
The magnitude of the earthquake reached 8.5. In Valparaiso, a major port on the coast, about 700 houses were destroyed. The surrounding villages were badly damaged. Workers died in the mines. The arrival of a 3.7-meter tsunami completed the destruction. In all, more than 500 people died.
13 August 1868, Arica
At the time, Arica was part of the Peruvian Republic, but it is now Chilean territory. In the area of this resort town, there was a very strong earthquake with a magnitude of 9.3. As a result, the town was completely destroyed, as was the neighboring town of Pisco. The two successive tsunami waves that followed were 12 and 16 meters high. They completed the devastation, killing 25,000 people.
24 January 1939, Chillan
An earthquake in central Chile reached a magnitude of 8.5. It completely destroyed the towns of Chillán and Concepción. In the latter, the theater, railway station, towers in Independence Square were destroyed, and numerous fires occurred. The total number of victims exceeded 28 thousand people.
22 May 1960, the Great Chilean Earthquake
The magnitude of the tremors then reached 9.3, which was the highest in the history of observations. The epicenter of the tremors was 700 kilometers south of Santiago. The cities of Concepcion, Valdivia, and Osorno were completely destroyed by the first shock. Immediately after the shock came a tsunami up to 10 meters high and completed the destruction. As a result, 6,000 people died, most of them because of the tsunami.
3 March 1985, Algarrobo
Strong tremors were felt throughout central Chile, including in the city of Valparaiso, where several houses collapsed. The tremors were as strong as magnitude 8. In total, 80 thousand houses were damaged in different cities, landslides blocked traffic on the Pan-American Highway, destroying several bridges. A total of 177 people died, and more than 2.5 thousand were injured.
16 September 2015, Coquimbo
One of the latest strong earthquakes occurred near the city of Coquimbo. Its magnitude reached 8.3. It caused power outages, fires, and the destruction of buildings. As a result, 9,000 people were left homeless. Fifteen people died, and 6 more were considered missing.
The epicenter of most Chilean earthquakes is located on the seabed, close to the coastline. Fluctuations in the seabed cause the ocean to shake. The stronger the tremors, the stronger the waves they cause. The waves generated by underwater shocks are called tsunamis. They are characterized by their enormous destructive power.
Over the years, tsunamis off the coast of Chile have occurred dozens of times. For the most part, they did not reach a height of 2-3 meters and did not pose a particular threat to the population. But after the strongest earthquakes, the height of tsunamis could reach 10 meters.
The most destructive were the tsunamis of 1868 (12-16 meters) and 1960 (10 meters). These waves caused the death of hundreds of people and were felt even on the other side of the Pacific Ocean – in Japan.
There are about 2,000 volcanoes in the country, of which about 500 can pose a real danger. The most active Chilean volcanoes of recent times include:
Llaima: An active volcano in the Araucania region with a height of 3125 meters. The most recent eruptions occurred in January and July 2008 and April 2009. They were accompanied by ash emissions, pyroplastic flows, and lava flows. Residents of nearby villages were evacuated.
Laskar: An active volcano in the north of the country with an altitude of 5,592 meters. Its most recent eruption began in 2013 and, with few interruptions, continues to this day.
Cerro Hudson: A volcano in the south of the country that had a major eruption in 1991. As a result, 4 cubic kilometers of ash were released into the air. In 2011, there was a new intensification of the volcano’s activity.
Landslides, Floods, and Mudslides
Landslides in Chile occur for two reasons: after earthquakes and due to heavy rainfall resulting in the erosion of rocks.
Because Chile is a mountainous country, landslides are a real threat here.
A classic example of a landslide after an earthquake was the events of 3 March 1985. Landslides damaged several bridges, stopping traffic on the Pan-American Highway.
An example of a landslide after a downpour is the recent event of late December 2017. Back then, prolonged rainfall resulted in multiple landslides and the deaths of 15 people.
The cause of mudflows – mudslides – is always heavy rainfall. Sometimes one day of intense rainfall is enough to trigger a mudslide. This is what happened on 18 June 1991 in Antofagasta when a mudflow destroyed 700 houses and killed 91 people.
In March 2015, the north of the country was affected by numerous floods accompanied by mudslides. The government was even forced to declare a state of emergency. As a result, 28,000 houses were damaged, and 25 people died.
Since the beginning of this century, Chile has regularly suffered from severe droughts, leading to an increase in the number of forest fires. One of the most difficult situations was the fire situation in 2022. During the season, 407 fire centers covering an area of more than 430 thousand hectares were registered.
In a number of places, the fire came close to settlements, causing the death of 26 people. More than 1100 houses were burnt down.
Scientists attribute the increased number of fires to global warming and climate change.
Earthquakes pose the greatest threat to tourists holidaying in Chile.
It is impossible to predict the time when the next strong earthquake will occur. Therefore, traveling to Chile should be prepared for this turn of events and know the order of actions in case of an emergency. In case of earthquakes with the epicenter in the ocean, there is a probability of a tsunami.
The danger of eruptions in the country is insignificant, despite the large number of active volcanoes.
Floods in the country are short-term, sudden, but no less destructive. They are often accompanied by mudflows because they occur on small mountain rivers. The peak of the flood season is at different times in different parts of the country. For the north, it is June-July, for the center – December-March.
Forest fires do occur in the country, but their danger to tourists is minimal.
The best time to visit Chile is in September-November or April-May. In the offseason, temperatures and weather conditions remain comfortable in almost all areas of the country, which makes it possible to make excursions to any point of interest in Chile.