The 1922 Vallenar Earthquake

Posted by Karl Lundgren on

Picture yourself in the tranquil town of Vallenar, Chile, in the overnight hours of November 11, 1922. The moon casts a gentle glow over the streets as the town slumbers, blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe that's about to unfold. The night is calm, and the residents are nestled in their homes, seeking refuge from the chill of the desert air. However, deep beneath the earth's surface, a geological time bomb is ticking, a ticking that will soon shatter the tranquility of this serene night and the lives of its inhabitants.

As the clock strikes 10:05pm local time, a deafening roar fills the air, and the earth itself seems to rebel. The ground beneath your feet begins to sway violently, as if a giant unseen hand is shaking Vallenar to its core. Your heart races as you scramble for safety, but the world around you is in chaos. Buildings crumble like sandcastles, and the once-steady ground now ripples like a tempestuous sea. The night's peace is shattered, and the earth's fury knows no bounds.

This scenario is not a work of fiction but an introduction to the grim reality of the 1922 Vallenar Earthquake, a seismic event that would change the course of Vallenar's history and leave an indelible mark on the annals of geological records. Join us as we journey back in time to explore the profound impact of this cataclysmic event, uncover its seismic origins, and witness the resilience of a community as it emerges from the rubble of destruction.

In the overnight hours of November 11, 1922, the sleepy town of Vallenar in Chile was jolted awake by an immense force of nature. The 1922 Vallenar Earthquake, also known as the Atacama Earthquake, remains a significant event in the annals of seismic history. This catastrophic event, with its far-reaching consequences, serves as a stark reminder of the Earth's relentless power and the need for constant vigilance.

I. The Seismic Prelude

Chile, nestled along the Pacific Ring of Fire, is a hotspot for seismic activity. This is primarily due to the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate, resulting in the buildup of immense tectonic stress. The Vallenar region had experienced tremors and foreshocks for several months before the main event, warning residents of the impending catastrophe. These smaller tremors were indicative of the geological restlessness brewing beneath their feet.

II. The Main Event

On November 11, at precisely 22:05 local time, the Earth unleashed its fury. The earthquake had a magnitude of 8.5 on the Richter scale, making it one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded. Its epicenter was located near Vallenar, a town in the Atacama Region, approximately 50 kilometers inland from the Pacific coast. The rupture extended over a distance of 250 kilometers.

The intensity of the shaking was felt as far away as Santiago, the capital of Chile, and even in neighboring countries like Argentina and Bolivia. Buildings crumbled, and the earth shook so violently that it created visible ground ruptures, with some displacements measuring up to four meters.

III. The Human Toll

The 1922 Vallenar Earthquake was not just a geological event; it was a human tragedy. The shaking caused immense damage to infrastructure, leaving Vallenar in ruins. The town's residents, who had experienced foreshocks for months, were caught unprepared, and the panic that ensued exacerbated the chaos.

Casualties were widespread, with an estimated 400-800 people losing their lives, though the exact number remains uncertain due to the destruction and the lack of comprehensive records. Many survivors were left homeless, and the entire region was plunged into a state of emergency.

IV. The Geologic Aftermath

In the aftermath of the earthquake, geologists and scientists from around the world converged on the region to study the geological phenomena associated with the event. The Atacama Fault, responsible for the rupture, became a focal point of research. This earthquake provided invaluable data for the understanding of large seismic events, including the mechanisms that drive them.

The rupture's length and complexity indicated the involvement of multiple fault segments, emphasizing the intricate nature of tectonic interactions. This information has since played a crucial role in seismic hazard assessment and preparedness, as it highlighted the potential for similar large earthquakes in the future.

V. Lessons Learned

The 1922 Vallenar Earthquake serves as a poignant lesson in the importance of earthquake preparedness and building resilience in seismically active regions. The disaster prompted Chile to rethink its construction practices and seismic building codes. Subsequent earthquakes in the country have shown that these efforts have saved countless lives and minimized damage.

International awareness of the need for earthquake preparedness was also raised by the Vallenar earthquake. The scientific community was able to glean important insights about the Earth's behavior, leading to advances in the field of seismology.

VI. The Resilience of Vallenar

Vallenar, like many towns faced with such a cataclysm, exhibited resilience in the face of adversity. The town was rebuilt, and its people, though scarred by the tragedy, came together to restore their community. The memory of the 1922 earthquake is etched into the town's history, serving as a constant reminder of the need for preparedness.

VII. Conclusion

The 1922 Vallenar Earthquake, a seismic event of unparalleled magnitude, left an indelible mark on both the geological and human landscapes. Its enduring legacy is one of caution and preparedness. It was a brutal reminder of the Earth's unrelenting power, teaching us that nature can disrupt human lives in the blink of an eye.

As we remember this event, let us honor the memory of those who perished and pay tribute to the survivors who displayed remarkable resilience. The Vallenar earthquake remains a poignant chapter in the history of seismic events, emphasizing the importance of understanding our planet and preparing for its potential fury.

So what can we do to get better prepared?


A kit is not a safety blanket you just purchase to make yourself feel better, it is an important investment in your household’s safety and preparedness. Not all emergency kits are created equal, and we highly recommend using the Province of BC and Government of Canada resources when building or buying a kit. We are also pleased to offer Earthquake Kits that developed to meet the government requirements for emergency preparedness. Visit our Gov BC Earthquake Kit product page to view the contents of our kits and feel free to use this as a guideline for assembling your own. What’s important to us is not that you buy a kit from us, but that every household have a kit at the ready in case something unexpected should occur.


The Province of BC and the Federal Government have made huge strides in this area in recent years implementing an Emergency Notifications network through mobile carriers and testing it to great success levels. This can provide seconds to even minutes of advanced notice prior to an earthquake being felt in any given location. However, a network of this complexity relies on strategically positioned censors along the coastline. We need to continue expanding this network of sensors and make sure that existing censors are being properly monitored and maintained.

We also need to expand from mobile phone notifications to physical alarms in homes, buildings, and especially schools/daycares.

For more details on how this Early Detection Grid works, please check out the following video by the CBC several years ago.


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