When you want to learn about a different country, the best way to do so is to ask someone who has lived there. Before I moved to Chile, I did lots of research online, I rented a book from the library so I could try to orient myself somewhat beforehand. But there are things travel guides don’t tell you(Or maybe I didn’t look hard enough). One of these things I never found in an article was that Santiago gets hit by a ton of earthquakes every year. This news came as kind of a shock, as I was not at all familiar with the phenomenon. In my mind, they were natural catastrophes like tornadoes and hurricanes. But it was explained to me that in Chile, it was just a part of everyday life. Since I felt my first one here on April 24th, 2017 I have been fascinated. It was unlike anything I have felt before.
I was actually in Starbucks conducting a private English class when everything started to shake, hard. My student casually said “Ah, an earthquake”. I looked at him and tried to keep the terror from showing on my face, since everyone was so calm. Then the ground shuddered harder, and the windows began to rattle dangerously. They made the same sound as when there’s a thunderstorm, and lightning strikes close by. But this time it wasn’t stopping, and even some of the Chileans looked nervous, never a good sign. An employee casually came upstairs to the second floor where we were and told us to evacuate the building. By the time we were halfway down the stairs, the quake was over. My student and I stood outside for a minute or two, but it was as if nothing had happened. Traffic was still going and people were still walking by on the sidewalk. My hands were actually kind of shaky, but once I saw that everyone else was as nonplussed as my student, I relaxed. Eventually we went back inside and finished the lesson.
He told me later that it had been a 7.1 on the Richter scale, and that I had received my first Chilean souvenir. In my mind, that’s a massive earthquake. But to Chileans, it was just a tremor. The aftershocks carried on sporadically into the night, making me and my roommates laugh nervously every time we felt one. Being on the seventh floor, we can feel them pretty well. I was even woken up in the middle of the night. The next day I realized how amazing it was. If a quake of that magnitude had hit St. Louis, or Miami, buildings would have fallen and a lot of people would have died. It would have been a massive catastrophe. Yet in Santiago, you just have to hold up your coffee so it doesn’t spill.
It also shows the different tectonic plates
I learned is that Chile is part of what is called the Pacific Ring of Fire. It got this name because 90% of the world’s earthquakes start along the red line. 75% of the Earth’s active volcanoes are along this line as well. Even though it looks more like a bent horseshoe, it is referred to as a ring because there are several volcanoes, both active and dormant, in Antarctica that complete the “ring”.
After the “big” quake, everyone was talking about it. My students know how new I am to Santiago, and were eager to see what I thought of it, and wanted to know if the “gringa” had freaked out. I told them it scared me a little, but no I didn’t cry or scream and why, do I really seem that dramatic? After their questions, we began to talk about how the city of Santiago, with all of its high rises, can survive such strong disturbances. One of my students owns his own business, and is having a third office built for his employees. He’s had the engineers and architects out at the site, and they told him how they would have to construct it in order for it not to fall down. Beneath the floor is 1.5 meters of space filled with springs and support joists. The exterior walls of his office are made with iron rebar and filled in with concrete. The rebar in the walls and the springs underneath allow the building to be more flexible and move with the ground. He made his point when he rapped his knuckles on the outside walls of the room we were in. Totally solid. He told me any smart native Chilean will do this when looking at houses to buy. I have been rapping on walls since just to see where the steel ends and the normal interior wall begins.
For the rest of the week there were intermittent earthquakes. A level 5 woke me up at 2:00 am one night; felt as if I was being rocked to sleep. A day or so later, 13 tremors were recorded throughout the entire day. I felt 2 of them in the morning right after I finished my breakfast. I tried to record as much as I could on Snapchat, but they are over so quickly, especially the small ones. By the time the other ones happened, I was on the ground walking and didn’t feel a thing, not even when I went underground on the subway. Had I known they were still going on I probably would have taken the bus. I have taken a very fascinating geology course in college; and with all these quakes and tremors happening, I started to get more and more interested in how Santiago lived through them.
There are different ways to brace buildings for earthquakes. I have a Pre-Intermediate class at a construction company, so I asked them to explain for me in English how the building they work in is designed to withstand a terremoto (earthquake in Spanish). They’re in a tall building, so at the top is a giant heavy pendulum, or some kind of weight distributor, will counter balance the building when it starts to sway back and forth. At least this is how it was described to me in their limited English. I have seen several buildings with giant X designs on them, and thought it was an architectural choice. In actuality, it’s another method for making a building flexible enough to move with the earth. Most if not all of the buildings here are symmetrical in order to equally distribute force. Instead of being built on the ground, buildings are set on bases made of either springs like I mentioned earlier, or padded cylinders that are made of steel and rubber with a lead core.
There is a lot more information out there about how this all works, but I don’t want to get too technical, and I’m the furthest thing from an engineer. My other question was why was this happening now? When I first got here in mid-March, there was nothing. Now there was roughly 20+ earthquakes in 1 week? What had changed in a month? According to Chileans, it’s the weather at this time of year. Since I am now on the opposite hemisphere, I am going to experience winter in July. So now that it’s May 1st, we’re in late autumn. That feels so weird to say. As everyone knows, in fall, the days are warm and the nights are cold. We also know that heat and cold expand and contract things. I have been told this is what is happening to the ground, that the tectonic plates are expanding and contracting due to the cold. In all honesty, it makes perfect sense. I’ve seen pipes burst in winter more times that I can count due to this effect. But I did a little scientific digging, and this is just not true. Earthquakes start miles underground, there is no way it can feel a 20 degree difference on the surface. So the answer to my question is that there is no answer. The tectonic plates move and slip at random.
All this being said, I’m really not concerned about the earthquakes. No one else here is, and like I said, these buildings have survived years and years of tremors, even the 8.8 in 2010 that wreaked havoc in Chile (I made the mistake of watching some of those videos on YouTube, and I now recommend not doing that). To be honest, after the “big” 7.1 one, the smaller ones are kind of cool. I’m sure the excitement will wear off quickly enough, but for now, the earthquakes here are new and shiny and amusing to me.