Exploring the historical earthquakes preceding the giant 1960 Chile earthquake in a time-dependent seismogenic zone

M. Cisternas, M. Carvajal, R. Wesson, L. L. Ely, N. Gorigoitia

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New documentary findings and available paleoseismological evidence provide both new insights into the historical seismic sequence that ended with the giant 1960 south-central Chile earthquake and relevant information about the region’s seismogenic zone. According to the few available written records, this region was previously struck by earthquakes of varying size in 1575, 1737, and 1837. We expanded the existing compilations of the effects of the two latter using unpublished first-hand accounts found in archives in Chile, Peru, Spain, and New England. We further investigated their sources by comparing the newly unearthed historical data and available paleoseismological evidence with the effects predicted by hypothetical dislocations. The results reveal significant differences in the along-strike and depth distribution of the ruptures in 1737, 1837, and 1960. While the 1737 rupture likely occurred in the northern half of the 1960 region, on a narrow and deep portion of the megathrust, the 1837 rupture occurred mainly in the southern half and slipped over a wide range of depth. Such a wide rupture in 1837 disagrees with the narrow and shallow seismogenic zone currently inferred along this region. If in fact there is now a narrow zone where 200 years ago there was a wider one, it means that the seismogenic zone changes with time, perhaps between seismic cycles. Such change probably explains the evident variability in both size and location of the great earthquakes that have struck this region over the last centuries, as evidenced by written history, and through millennia, as inferred from paleoseismology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2664-2675
Number of pages12
JournalBulletin of the Seismological Society of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2017
Externally publishedYes


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