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Predecessors of the giant 1960 Chile earthquake


It is commonly thought that the longer the time since last earthquake, the larger the next earthquake's slip will be. But this logical predictor of earthquake size1, unsuccessful for large earthquakes on a strike-slip fault2, fails also with the giant 1960 Chile earthquake of magnitude 9.5 (ref. 3). Although the time since the preceding earthquake spanned 123 years (refs 4, 5), the estimated slip in 1960, which occurred on a fault between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates, equalled 250–350 years' worth of the plate motion3,6,7,8,9,10. Thus the average interval between such giant earthquakes on this fault should span several centuries3,9,10. Here we present evidence that such long intervals were indeed typical of the last two millennia. We use buried soils and sand layers as records of tectonic subsidence and tsunami inundation at an estuary midway along the 1960 rupture. In these records, the 1960 earthquake ended a recurrence interval that had begun almost four centuries before, with an earthquake documented by Spanish conquistadors in 1575. Two later earthquakes, in 1737 and 1837, produced little if any subsidence or tsunami at the estuary and they therefore probably left the fault partly loaded with accumulated plate motion that the 1960 earthquake then expended.

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Figure 1: Index maps.
Figure 2: Stratigraphic evidence for 1960 earthquake and its ancestors in area shown by purple dot in Fig. 1c.
Figure 3: Arboreal evidence for difference between the 1960 and 1837 earthquakes, in area shown by red triangle in Fig. 1c.


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This work was supported by Chile's Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico (Fondecyt) and by the US Geological Survey. Logistical help came from the Municipality of Maullín and its people (M. I. Silva, P. Soto, R. Vergara, J. Gallardo, G. Andrade, J. Soarzo and C. Ruiz), and from the Servicio Hidrológico y Oceanográfico of the Armada de Chile. The manuscript incorporates suggestions from S. Barrientos, S. Bondevik, C. Lomnitz, A. Nelson, K. Wang, J. Clague and E. Geist. Author Contributions M.C. and B.A. led the fieldwork and writing. F.T. studied documents; Y.S. studied diatoms; G.M. studied tree slabs. M.L. and I.S. contributed to three seasons of fieldwork, G.M. and C.Y. to two, and A.E., M.H., T.K., J.K.M., C.P.R., Y.R. and M.S. to one.

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Correspondence to Marco Cisternas.

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Supplementary Figures

The file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S4. Supplementary Figure S1 details various map and airphoto views of the study area. Supplementary Figure S2 provides stratigraphic details from all transects. Supplementary Figure S3 details the setting of radiocarbon samples, plotted on stratigraphic cross sections. Supplementary Figure S4 details diatom data. (PDF 6323 kb)

Supplementary Tables

Supplementary Table S1 gives accounts of the earthquakes of 1575, 1737, and 1837. Supplementary Table S2 details radiocarbon ages. Supplementary Table S3 presents diatom data. Supplementary Table S4 presents tree-ring data. (PDF 3038 kb)

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Cisternas, M., Atwater, B., Torrejón, F. et al. Predecessors of the giant 1960 Chile earthquake. Nature 437, 404–407 (2005).

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