Chile is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the great tectonic band where about 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. Before I moved here, I’d experienced four earthquakes, one tiny one in Guatemala, two moderate ones in the UK, and one on a previous visit to Chile. Since I arrived here six months ago I’ve felt five more and I’m starting to get used to how often they happen. I felt two at Paranal on my first shift there, and then in January I felt my first one in Santiago, when my building wobbled startlingly.
Every earthquake feels different. On Saturday morning I was woken at 4.30am by the building shaking again, and it felt like all the motion was vertical. The previous quake had felt completely side-to-side. There were two distinct pulses of shaking, and the building creaked eerily in the quiet night. I got up and went out onto my balcony, and all around I could see lights coming on in apartments. I tried to check sismologia.cl but found that the website was down. This happened in January as well. Any earthquake large enough to be felt triggers a wave of people wanting to know how big it was and where it happened. Eventually the website came back up and I found out that this had been a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, centred just 30 miles from Santiago. No damage reported, no casualties, only a slight irritation to be woken up so early. That evening I met up with some friends, some of whom had been here in 2010 when Chile suffered one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. We all talked about what we’d felt.
Then on Sunday evening after a quiet day, suddenly I felt the familiar shaking starting again. At first I could hardly believe it, coming just a day after the last one. We’d been talking about how long earthquakes seemed to last, and as the shaking started I looked at a clock because I was curious to know how long it would go on for. The shaking and noise grew, and as I looked out of my window I could see all the windows in other nearby buildings wobbling crazily. Car alarms started going off, and dogs started barking. But I didn’t feel worried or inclined to hide under a table or leave the building, until I heard some of my neighbours hurrying out into the corridor. If they’re panicking, I though, then perhaps I should. But then, after a full minute of shaking, the quake stopped.
Once again, sismologia was down, and it stayed down for a while, but soon enough I found details on the USGS earthquake page. This one had been greater than magnitude 7, and was one of the largest earthquakes of 2012 so far. It was easily the strongest earthquake I’d felt, and for some time afterwards I kept thinging that the building was shaking again.
The earthquake was centred near the coast and the next concern was whether there would be a tsunami. Before 2004 I guess most people wouldn’t have thought too much about this risk, but now we’ve all seen terrifying footage of what they actually are. In Santiago there was obviously nothing to worry about, but a friend on the coast in Viña del Mar was having her relaxing weekend away ruined by trying to work out whether she should head for the hills or not. I did my best to help but found that my vocabulary had crucial gaps in it. “Coastguard (blank) tsunami along the coast of Chile”, I read on one news website. What might that blank mean? Fears? Flees from? Washed away in? I looked it up, and fortunately found out that it meant “rules out”. A couple of hours later the sea was apparently seen to recede dramatically and an evacuation was ordered, but it turned out to be a false alarm.
So we were all safe, and despite the size of the quake there was little damage and no deaths, although an elderly woman died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.
Of course it’s only a matter of time until the next quake. As long as there is no damage and no casualties, I think earthquakes are quite cool. I like the weirdness of feeling the very ground below shaking violently. I find it incredibly impressive and awe inspiring. But magnitude 7 is probably about the limit for this. The 2010 quake released more than 300 times as much energy as this one. That, I will be happy not to experience.