Earthquake? Waiting for the “Big One”

The Earth moved last night. Happens a lot around here. A bit of late-night shake, rattle, and roll that heightens all the senses and leaves us momentarily breathless. No, I’m not revealing any personal information here… I’m talking about Santiago’s latest temblor, or tremor, that literally jolted us awake at 4:05 this morning. (I know Abby   felt it too!)

It wasn’t a big onejust IV (Moderate) on the Mercalli Scale in Santiago (IIISlightin Valparaíso). But the thing about earthquakes is that they are absolutely unpredictable, and once they start there’s no way to know if this is “the Big One.”

Think about it. Hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, cyclones, floods, tidal waves, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and any other kind of potentially disastrous natural phenomenon you can come up with gives some kind of warning, but not an earthquake. It just sneaks up on you when you’re least expecting it at any time at all. Just happens, and in Chile, it happens a lot. Chile has more seismic activity (tremors and earthquakes) than any other country on Earth. Yep! Not only the most, but the biggest too… The 1960 earthquake in Valdivia (southern Chile) registered 9.5 on the Richter scale, the highest in recorded history!

So, it seems reasonable enough to believe that this kind of terrestrial instability would have to have some kind of psychological effect on people, right? And that it could-should-might ripple out to a more globalized cultural effect, wouldn’t it?

I can’t help but wonder if the seemingly generalized tendency toward short- rather than long-term planning, toward patching over fixing, toward the “we could die tomorrow” attitude that I get from my husband whenever I talk about retirement planning has anything to do with the constant awareness that the chain can be yanked, the plug pulled, the rug whisked from under your feet at any moment has anything to do with it. And it just seems to fit.

It’s not easy to make plans when you know that the world can turn upside down at any moment. There you are, just minding your own business, going about your life and wham… London Bridge Puente Arzobispo comes falling down, along with everything else around you… or then again, not… you just never know.

Central Chile’s last big-big earthquake was in March 1985. They say the big ones come every 15 or 20 years, so doing the math, it looks like we’re now overdue for a beaut! But then again, you never know. There’s no way at all to tell. You just have to learn to live with things you can’t control and accept that the things you think you control can come undone in the blink of an eye or a point on the Richter scale.

Richter vs Mercalli?

The Richter Scale measures the magnitude of the energy released at the source of an earthquake and is indicated by numbers generally ranging from <2 to 10+.

The Mercalli Scale  is a more subjective measurement of the perceived intensity of the event  and is indicated in Roman numerals (I-IX).

10 responses to “Earthquake? Waiting for the “Big One”

  1. How did you find out the Mercalli scale for last night’s temblor? I was interested in seeing, since to me it felt stronger than any I’ve felt before. I thought maybe it was just because I, like you, am not from an earthquake zone, but my host mom seemed to think it was pretty strong as well (although she likes to exaggerate everything…haha).

  2. I checked some of the local news sites. Radio Cooperativa usually has good up-to-date info (although by now the news about this morning’s temblor has already rolled off). La Tercera on-line also tends to be pretty good. One of them cited Servicio Sismológico de la Universidad de Chile: ( as the source, but I couldn’t access the April figures (I think I’m missing a Java script or something or other).

  3. This one was pretty strong, but relatively short and no aftershocks, so at least it was easy to get back to sleep! If you look at the Mercalli Wiki link, it describes the different degrees of perception and the class IV pretty much sums it up!

  4. Hmm, I have to say that I’m not too sure about your philosophy. I’m from California where temblores and the occasional terremoto are a part of life. I always have to laugh when other foreigners here freak out over what I would consider nothing…I forget that not everyone grew up with the ground shaking! Then again those things you mentioned like hurricanes and tornadoes seem very dangerous and scary to me because I’ve never lived through them. I remember the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which killed several people and resulted in a freeway bridge having to be rebuilt as it collapsed, yet I don’t wake up every morning feeling like today might be the day that the Big One hits. And I don’t see the same lack of future plans there in California as here in Chile, which seems to me to indicate that the shaking ground might not be that linked to peoples’ mentality.

  5. Hmmm- good point… you can’t put California (or Japan, for that matter) in the same group just because they also live with the constant threat of earthquakes… (that’s why those darned generalizations are always such slippery slopes!)
    But honestly- when everything starts to shake, don’t you wonder about how long it’s going to last and how much (if any) damage it’s going to do?

  6. Interesting theory but it seems pretty off-base. A. for the reasons that Emily pointed out, and B. because I think the majority of Latin American cultures have the same short term mentally, and not all of those are located on fault lines. 🙂

    It could, however, be related to instability of life in general, more related to poverty, than to natural disasters. However, that’s just another random theory, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

  7. Yeah, I know the theory as such doesn’t hold water… but I wonder about these things sometimes and thought I’d throw it out and see what others had to say. I really can’t help but wonder what kind of effect that earthquakes (more than any other natural disaster) have on people due to their unpredictability.
    Clearly there’s no one single factor, and as you say, instability in general must be a big factor, but I really think that a sense of having no control (for whatever reason) must lead to a sense of hopelessness–or maybe a sense of potential wasted effort–about trying to do something to make for a better tomorrow.

  8. Pingback: Chile’s Earthquake hits 8.8 « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

  9. Pingback: Chile’s Earthquake–the 8.8 experience « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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