Prior to a vacation, first-timers start paying closer attention to what’s happening at their destination. Many of those anticipating a southern summer in Patagonia probably noticed the 8.3 earthquake that occurred on September 16th near the Chilean city of Illapel, about 300 km north of the capital of Santiago.
That was a big event but, as someone who’s lived most of my life in earthquake country, it didn’t alarm me – especially given its distance from southernmost Chilean Patagonia, which experiences few quakes of any kind. Most of Chile, including Illapel, lies along the westerly Nazca Plate, which has forced the adjacent easterly South American Plate upwards to form the highest peaks of the Andean range (such as Argentina's Aconcagua, above, as seen from the Chilean coast range).
The city of Punta Arenas (pictured above) is roughly 2400 km south of Illapel, where the weaker Antarctica and Scotia plates meet the South American Plate and the Andes – considerably lower in elevation here - gradually disappear beneath the sea. In fact, the majestic granite spires of Chile’s Torres del Paine and Argentina’s Fitz Roy range (pictured below) are summits more recently exposed by erosion than raised by tectonic forces.
That’s not to say that Patagonia has been quake-free. Shakes of a 7.5 magnitude took place here in 1879 and 1949 – the latter causing some landslides on Tierra del Fuego, where the latitudinal Lago Fagnano marks the fault line. Those quakes brought minor tsunamis, mitigated by the irregular island terrain. There were also smaller quakes (about 4.7 in 1997 and 1998), and there have been some shallow quakes associated with smaller volcanoes such as Reclus (west of Torres del Paine) and Monte Burney (Chile’s southernmost volcano, about 200 km northwest of Punta Arenas).
All this is a way of saying that recent events won’t stop me from going to Patagonia – or any other part of Chile – this coming southern summer. About three years ago, I was sleeping on the ninth floor of an ultra-contemporary hotel in the Andean foothills (pictured above) - not that far from the epicenter of the recent quake - when a 6.5 magnitude event startled me awake. That the shaking caused no damage whatsoever was pretty good evidence, as The Miami Herald recently noted, that new construction standards have improved Chile’s seismic safety.