Magnitude 8.8 earthquake off Chile coast

By Phil Plait | February 27, 2010 9:59 am

Last night at 06:34 UTC, a huge earthquake struck on the coast of Chile, with a reported magnitude of a numbing 8.8 — making it one of the largest earthquakes recorded on Earth since 1900.

A tsunami warning has been issued for the entire Pacific ocean. This is no joke; the tsunami gauges in the deep ocean have registered a wave spreading from the quake. I don’t know how big the amplitude is, but there have been confirmed reports of waves a meter high in Chile. That may not sound like much, but water weighs a ton per cubic meter/yard, so a wave that high has a lot of destructive power.

The tsunami should hit Hawaii around 11:05 local time, and it’s not clear at all how big it will be. In 1960, a larger earthquake happened off Chile and a tsunami hit Hilo, Hawaii causing quite a bit of damage. If you live anywhere near a Pacific coast, please check the local news and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. Also, a live stream of news from Hawaii is on I’ve been listening and the coverage is pretty good.

If you live in Hawaii, now might be a good time to check out that higher ground you hear so much about. At the very least, stay away from the beaches! People are already starting to evacuate the coasts, so if you choose to get out, the earlier you get moving, the better. Traffic is bound to get snarled. Please please please don’t panic. Stay calm, and keep focused.

It’s unclear if this will be a big wave or not. But if you’re in Hawaii you should consider moving to higher ground.

Here is a map by the NOAA of the modeled energy wave expected from the earthquake:


It’s unclear to me just how big a wave this means in terms of real height (it’s a model, not an actual measurement), but it should bring home that you should take this seriously.

I’ll note that the magnitude scale doesn’t translate perfectly to energy released, but roughly speaking an 8.8 quake releases the energy equivalent of 20 billion tons of TNT, or 400 time the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated (Tsar Bomba, a 50 megaton test done by the USSR in 1961). If the measurement hold up, this will be the fifth or sixth strongest earthquake recorded since 1900. The strongest ever recorded, in 1977 1960, was magnitude 9.5, also in Chile — the one that caused the tsunami in Hilo.

Thanks to Sean Carroll for the link to the energy map. Note also, in this post I referred to the Richter scale, which is no longer used. I corrected that.


Comments (63)

  1. Colin J

    And if I may add, THIS is why we do science! Because it’s research that led to our ability to analyze, monitor and predict this and it SAVES LIVES. Best wishes to all those who may be affected.

  2. Nick Reinartz

    I’m here in Hawaii and have a view of H1 and the Airport and the roads are an absolute wreck. If anyone is reading this in Hawaii leave now, you have no idea how long it will take you to get where you are going. My friend went from his house near the Aloha tower to mine here on Triple and it took him almost an hour, that is normally a 10-15 minute drive. I can’t stress this enough. Also drive safe, don’t panic, there has already been one death on H1 because people are trying to rush and push others off the road to get where they are going.

    Stay safe everyone.

  3. Phil, the largest eartquake was in 1960. Also in Chile. We Chileans rock… literally, hahahaha

  4. Thanks for posting this. I’ve been checking the evacuation site for my friend who lives in Honolulu but it’s down. I’m sure due to the amount of people trying to figure out if, where, and how they should evacuate. The magnitude of this earthquake and then tsunami is amazing….the force of Mother Nature! I can tell you, I’m a bit frightened for those in the path of the tsunami. You know it’s coming but you don’t know how bad it will be until it actually arrives…kind of like the hurricanes we experience here in Florida every year. My heart goes out to all those in Chile and everyone in the path of this tsunami. Take heed and prepare! Get out of harms’ way, if at all possible, please!

  5. It’s fascinating to see according to the model, how Australia is shielded from the worst by the pacific islands, as is the entire asian east coast..

    The question is, when my area is going to be hit with a large quake. We had a four-point-something a couple of years back, and that rattled a lot of people even though it barely shook a bit more than the contents of your closet and shelves… But we’re in a geologically active region (natural geothermic springs occur here), have signs of former volcanism.. tectonically speaking, we can be hit with something up to 7.0 on Richter.. I don’t think I want to experience that.

  6. Román

    I am from Santiago of Chile. I was in a 13th floor and it was HUGE, I mean the most frightening thing i have ever lived. Here authorities speak of 150 deaths. My love to the families. Hope in Hawaii people take good care.

  7. I’m just waiting for Pat Robertson to tell my why his god is mad at the Chileans now… Or would that be the entire Pacific basin?

  8. Leaf

    he magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile on May 22, 1960.

  9. Peter Laws

    Not all scientists agree that tsunamis are earthquake-o-genic! This is all clearly a hoax and no one should disturb their lives based on these so-called scientists crying wolf yet again!

    Also, Al Gore is fat.

  10. alfaniner

    My friends live in Ewa Beach, less than a mile from the Tsunami Warning Center. If anyone would get the news early it would be them. They are packin’ and evac-in’.

  11. Lost_in_Samoa

    Good science is a wonderful thing. A true benefit to mankind.

    Bad science, Politicized science, Science for agenda, Science that is driven by grant / monetary acquisition is an anathema to all.

    waiting for the tsunami to arrive.

    Manuia Lava

  12. Elias

    I’m from Chile, And last night was hell on earth, That minute lasted forever! Glad to see news here, And how you explain it so well and call for calm.

    Greetings from Chile!

  13. David

    I’m on the Big Island near Hilo. The first wave is expected between 11:04 and 11:16 HST. Hilo airport closed at 6:00 am. The roads, stores, and gas stations here are packed.

    Warning sirens went off at 6:00. They are closing roads at 10:00 am. Doubtful we will see any injuries if we do get a wave as Big Island people are pretty akamai when it comes to tsunamis.

    You can follow Big Island police on my scanner here:

  14. Barneyj

    I’m in Ewa Beach, a few miles away from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center – and a few miles inland of the danger zone. Bracing for impact. . .

  15. Gary Ansorge

    12. Elias:

    I hope your infrastructure is more solidly built than were the structures in Haiti. Another 200,000 people dying is not something I want to see.

    A fraking 8.8? The way I understood the Richter scale was that a 9.0 could level Calif. A 10.0 could shatter the whole fraking planet. How far off the mark are those estimates?

    3 more hours ’til it hits Hawaii. I hope Y’All have had sufficient warning to survive unharmed. Dang, I hate to see my favorite island state facing such a threat. You’re not alone in this.

    Gary 7

  16. I -think- the graphic is supposed to show projected wave height, but because the scale is compressed it’s not possible to make meaningful visual distinctions between areas expected to see waves over 20cm. Hard to tell, and the NOAA site does not provide clear interpretive info.

  17. Mike

    8.8? Sweet Zombie Jesus that’s big. Unfortunate that there were casualties but it could be so much worse. I’m betting the surfers around here in LA would be tenting their hands — if it weren’t raining. Damn ocean will be toxic today.

    Good luck in Hawaii. O_O

  18. hhEb09'1

    Gary, I made those up, and left them where you’d find them.

  19. Stuart Goldman

    NOT the Richter scale! Geologists don’t use it anymore! Saying “magnitude 8.8” is sufficient and correct. See

  20. Gary Ansorge

    18. hhEb09’1:

    Really?,,,and you did this 40 years ago? Tricky, Dude.

    Gary 7

  21. Randy A.

    The Richter scale is no longer used much. The scale was developed using the particular type of seismograph that Richter had — and we now have different and more accurate machines.

    The 8.8 number is most likely the magnitude based on surface waves. In a couple days, when enough data has been collected and analyzed, seismologists will be able to give a moment magnitude, which is a measure of the energy released. It could be a little more or less than 8.8.

    As several people have mentioned, magnitude scales are logarithmic — but not base ten! Energy goes up roughly by a factor of 32 for every one on the magnitude scale. The recent earthquake in Haiti was magnitude 7. This earthquake released 512 times more energy (32^(8.8-7)).

  22. DrFlimmer

    First of all, my condolences to all the injured and effected people in Chile. Hopefully no one else gets hurt by the wave, but most coasts are far away and therefore there is a long time of warning before the wave actually hits.

    I wonder if anything happened to the telescopes in the Atacama desert. I know, they are a two-hour flight north of Santiago and thus far away, but what was the magnitude of the quake when it arrived at the ‘scopes?

  23. Alma Scopes are fine! Greetings from Zapallar, Chile

  24. Zane

    We’re just getting the first waves in NZ now. First wave hit the Chatham islands half an hour ago, but was only minor, but we’re expecting up to 2 metres in some places as the later waves arrive and depending on local amplifications.

  25. Pablo Mera

    @DrFlimmer: For what I understand, the region where the telescopes are located was not affected, so they should be ok. :p

    Luckily, here in Chile we are very prepared for these kind of emergencies since we’ve lived through some of the most terrible earthquakes (including the 1960 earthquake, the most powerful in recorded history). There’s around 150 deaths confirmed by now, which I think is a miracle that number is so low considering the energy released. One of the most frightening and at the same time incredible experiences of my life. :s

  26. earth2allie

    I am wondering too, Dr. Flimmer. Clearly hoping for minimal loss of life, and I can’t help but wonder how this affects observatories in Chile. And I wonder if the BA can find out for us if the Hilo astronomers that work at Gemini North are okay and evacuating.

  27. Not all earthquakes are based in the Pacific Basin. One of the worst earthquakes on record struck off the coast of Portugal in 1755. For all that it’s little known, it probably changed the course of European history.

  28. Tim McLanahan

    Wake up people. This is a distraction, more than likely brought to you by the Illuminati and their weather controlling, earth
    controlling, electormagnetic weapon base utilized through satellite dishes in space.
    They know where all the fault lines are on Earth and utilize
    G.P.S. to initiate these systems when the satellite dishes are in orbital space. Don’t be fooled by these homicidial maniacs. The
    media ewill portray otherwise but undoubetly these men are utilizing this system at will to destory portions of the planet.
    If you notice, three of the largest earthquakes in the last five years have happened against all people who are non-whites. The Illuminati and their little click are what???? That’s right.
    This relief is probably being organized again. By forces in the U.N. The Illuminati are distracting you in my opinion and creating this damage to keep you off of what is really going on
    in the world. They are asking you for donations while solidifying their power through these emergencies and catastrophes. They are building the momentum leading to Project Blue Beam. Look this up. It’s a U.S. Governemnt Program.

  29. DaveS

    Tim, I appreciate irony, or whatever you call that, as much as the next guy, but it’s just adding to the noise here, when it’s a current event we’re talking about.

    The wave should have hit California a few minutes ago. Any news?

  30. 24601

    Tim: I think you mean clique. ^_^

    Anyone else getting a 403 on the site?

  31. Anton P. Nym

    Zane @27: Wow, just looked at the tsunami gauge link you provided (timestamp 09:45 NZ time) and the wave shows up really plainly… if I’m reading it correctly, that is.

    Best wishes to those facing this, and I hope for a speedy recovery for the people of Chile.

    — Steve

  32. chemdude

    Hi Phil, wondering where you got 8.8 magnitude quake releases 20 billion tons of TNT. According to the USGS a magnitude 9 quake is equivalent to roughly 475 million tons of TNT.
    Still a heck of lot. My thoughts go out to everyone effected by this quake.

  33. JackJl

    Yeah I’ve got 403 on hawaiitsunami – the feed was ripped from

    I’m watching that now

  34. Just looking at the devastation in Haiti, from a quake less than half of the power (do I have the scale right?), I say good on you Chileans for your building codes!


  35. Jess Tauber

    So far the impacts on Hawaii have been minimal, from what I’ve been hearing. Perhaps the bulk of the tidal wave is being saved for Jenny McCarthy?


  36. P@J

    @dennis, #36

    The earthquake in Haiti was at 13km depth, and very close to a large poulation centre. This one is at 35km depth, likely in the descending slab… a lot of energy-attenuating rock above that. It was also well offshore.

    And no, this is a 8.8, Haiti was a 7. This is almost 100x the power.

    As for the pretty tsunami prediction picture, I learned on Pielke’s site that computer models aren’t really science, but are part of the warmist conspiracy…

  37. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Phil, the largest eartquake was in 1960. Also in Chile.

    Yes, indeed.

    Seems BA was hit by a tsunami of data: the “Largest Earthquakes in the World Since 1900” page on USGS says the reference they used was from 1977 (Kanamori). If not, the 2nd largest earthquake 1964 in Alaska, a mere 9.2, also happened in 1977. 😀

    In fact, then 8 out of the 14 largest did. Which sounds like a beached whale of a proposition.

  38. jones

    The computer model was wrong. I’m just kidding. I’m not anti-science. The sea level in Hawaii was wrong.

  39. JRose

    What was damage reported in the Dihato coastal area of Chile

  40. Frodis

    Evacuation orders have been issued for many coastal cities and villages along the Pacific coast of Japan. A Tsunami of between one and three metres is expected to hit the Japan coast around 1300 JST. Where I live the tsunami is expected around 15oo JST and is forecast to be between 1 and 2 metres. It’s hard to imagine something so potentially destructive on such an otherwise beautiful spring day.

  41. Chris

    @earth2allie: I believe Gemini South did not suffer any damage. I am not there (any more) but I have been hearing from former colleagues at Gemini during the day. Things may change as more investigation is done but for now the news for the astronomical community appears good, at least as far as the hardware on the ground.

  42. MadScientist

    @Phil: You mixed up the reference cited with the actual date of the quake. The M9,5 Chilean quake was in 1960. Aside from being the largest recorded to date (since recording seismographs were standardized ~100 years ago) it really is quite amazing to see the seismograms from that earthquake (at least for stations not too close and stations not in the shadow region). On the long period pendulum (~15s period) you can see the same pattern repeat every few hours as the shock propagated around the globe. Humans have never built anything that could ring the earth like a bell, but nature does it.

  43. Something very annoying is that today the Chilean Navy assured the country we would not get a tsunami because the readings from their network of instruments discarded this possibility, but some time later the tidal waves were destroying several small towns along the Chilean shore… As a radiobroadcaster put it, people just had “an intuition” and decided to ignore the scientifically-backed position, escaping to the hills anyway. They were right and lots of lives were saved thanks to this “feeling”. Previous experiences show that Chilean people are rather excitable when facing an earthquake and will run to the hills whenever there is a little tremor and somebody cries wolf. The problem is, I’m pretty sure they will count the hit and ignore all the many misses, so the scientific predictions will lose credibility in the eyes of the people. I guess it was simply a matter of a guy at the Navy not reading/interpreting correctly the data, or that this was one chaotic phenomenon whose outcome was not fully predictable and thus the Navy should have given a warning anyway. It’s frustrating anyway…

  44. All these occurrence in the world today reminds us all that we should change our lifestyle
    and get closer to God. I think the earth is greatly warmed, most especially the Latin American areas. Due to the high industrialization and warming of the earth’s crust at a dangerous rate, the earth is reacting by sending earthquakes with high magnitude. Just like in Haiti, the recovery process has been slow, and now we have one impending. Citizens of the world need to pray and reform our lifestyle. So that we can protect our planet…

  45. DrFlimmer

    The ESO just send a press release:

    A magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck central Chile at 03:34 local time (07:34 CET) on Saturday 27 February 2010. The epicentre was 115 km north-northeast of the city of Concepción and 325 km south-west of the capital Santiago. The earthquake has caused significant casualties and damage in the country.

    ESO expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the victims, and its sympathy and support for all those affected by the earthquake.

    No casualties among ESO staff have been reported. At present, power cuts and network interruptions mean that communication may be limited. Disruption to staff travel plans within, to, and from Chile should be expected. We urge Visiting Astronomers with observations planned at ESO observatories to put their trips to Chile on hold until further notice. International flights to and from Santiago International Airport are currently either cancelled or diverted. Information about observing programmes will be provided at a later date.

    Despite being the 7th strongest earthquake ever recorded worldwide, the ESO observatory sites did not suffer any damage, partly as they are engineered to withstand seismic activity and partly due to their distances from the epicentre. At La Silla, a power cut caused observations to stop during the night. Paranal Observatory, the APEX telescope and the ALMA Operations Support Facility and Array Operations Site were unaffected.



    @ Emmanuel Olujumu (#47),

    I’ve often observed that most of the major earthquakes tend to occur at around the time of the New/Full Moon, probably due to tidal stresses on the Earth’s crust, and, incidentally, there is a Full Moon tonight, which I think is a far more plausible explanation for the earthquake in Chile yesterday morning than your implying that god — I choose not to capitalize that noun, thank-you-very-much! — is totally pissed-off with mankind and that we should all grovel like children in order to appease him!

  47. As exciting as it was to watch the live tsunami watch, I’m glad nothing really bad happened on that account.
    Now attention can be focused on the damages caused by the earthquake itself.

    About the full moon theory, it’s just not true.
    If you go through the list of major earthquakes on Wikipedia and compare it to the phases of the moon at the same time, you’ll see that they occur at all moon phases.

  48. Scott de B.

    “NOT the Richter scale! Geologists don’t use it anymore! Saying “magnitude 8.8″ is sufficient and correct.”

    If geologists don’t use it, why does the USGS page on earthquake magnitude discuss the Richter Scale?

  49. JB of Brisbane

    @ Emmanuel Olujumu (#47),
    Man, did you pick the wrong blog to which to post THAT comment – just keep checking back here to see what I mean (starting with #48).

  50. Cairnos

    In NZ the tsunami thankfully didn’t amount to much (depending on where you where, apparently in the Chatham Islands an entire bay drained out) however it did show that crazy will always be with us as shown by the mminority of people who thought that a tsunami warning was a good reason to go for swim.

    On the other hand it has also given me reason to hope, on our local news website one reader commented that it was all hype and the relevant minister shoud resign as well as all the civil defense staff involved. Two thirds of the other following comments were responses to that one and all on the theme of “You are a complete muppet.”

  51. Markle

    @JB of Brisbane Emmanuel Olujumu (#47) is a link spammer. His namelink goes to a site promoting a stock trading scam. Of course , if you look at the code on any link in the comments you’ll see this: rel=”external nofollow” which means he gets none of Phil’s Googlejuice.


    on our local news website one reader commented that it was all hype and the relevant minister shoud resign as well as all the civil defense staff involved. Two thirds of the other following comments were responses to that one and all on the theme of “You are a complete muppet.”

    Most of the twitter stuff I saw linked to #tsunami yesterday afternoon agreed with your muppet, unfortunately

  52. Pete H

    54. Markle Says: Emmanuel Olujumu (#47) is a link spammer

    Nigerian 419 Scammer would be closer 😉 He even tried this rubbish on WUWT!

  53. drewski

    Humans are not very good at assessing the consequences of uneventuated risks.

  54. blooggy

    Some one collected quick scientific and tehnical details of Chile earthquake. Want to share it with others.

  55. 24601

    Our friend at the previously-mentioned Bible Code site just updated his Utah comet page this morning to add a line that he “found” about the Chile earthquake. Kinda fishy that he waited 2 days to find it, no?

  56. Sanja P.

    Was just watching Rachel Maddow and saw her report that a NASA scientist has said that the earth actually shifted on its axis as a result of the quake and possibly shortened our days ( Wow.

    My aunt and uncle (who is Chilean) are currently down there. We had a few anxious hours before we were able to get any sort of communication about them and then from them. Luckily they were out of the worst of it because they had gone on a trip down south to Valdivia. But they definitely felt it down there as well and the next day my aunt wrote to say, “Here some roads close to the river are split like pieces of bread”.

    Hope everyone who is in need of help down there gets it as soon as possible.

  57. By the way, we’re always happy to say that if you were in the deep ocean you wouldn’t even notice a tsunami going past your boat. As luck would have it there was (and is) someone out there to report on this. Abby Sunderland is sailing solo around the world at was in line with the path of the tsunami and reported. . . nothing! Here’s her blog:

  58. Living in San Diego and experiencing the longest and strongest earthquake that I have felt,not only reminds me of the power of Mother Nature,but how unprepared we are to respond to these disasters on an individual basis. A family evacuation plan and having an earthquake/survival kit for easy access would help ensure safety. We should not live our lives in fear but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared either.

  59. June

    I lived through it in Constitución very near the epicenter and my house came down over my head and just escaped crawling out of a window. On return from higher ground after daylight we saw we might have walked in (or out) where the wall behind our bed had been. Of course it may have fallen afterward or due to the water that reached the house and left about 30 cms of muddy sop and a few sardines in our room. The rest of the house was a shambles, what was standing wobbled. I’ve lived through 5 major earthquakes, 1939 49, 53, 60, the worst ever and this one, but this was dreadful, shorter that 60, but seemed to shake in every direction. The damage is incredible because it hit the most populated part of Chile and the buildings in small towns are not built earthquake proof. No light,no water, no telephone or mobile no gas or petrol and roads unpassable the first days. Only connection with the world was the car radio. Torches lost in the mud or under walls or furniture


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