This guest post was contributed by a scientist, student or a professional in the Earth, planetary or space sciences. The EGU blogs welcome guest contributions, so if you've got a great idea for a post or fancy trying your hand at science communication, please contact the blog editor or the EGU Communications Officer Laura Roberts Artal to pitch your idea.

Shaking on Christmas Day: what we know about the 7.6 M Chile earthquake

Chile, Chiloe earthquake

While the majority of us were midway through our Christmas Day celebrations, a powerful 7.6 M earthquake struck off the western coast of the Chile. Natural hazards are not bound by time, location or festivities; an earthquake can happen at any time in any place, regardless of the significance of the day. As a result, in this earthquake prone region, raising awareness of the risk posed by natural hazards is vitally important.

The Christmas Day quake struck 42 km south west of the port city of Quellón, on the rural island of Chiloé at a depth of 34 km. Despite the powerful shaking, the tremor caused no casualties and damage to infrastructure was limited. For a time, services (such as water and power) to the southern tip of Chiloé were cut. Most affected were roads and bridges, particularly the recently renovated highway 5, which links Quellón with the fishing town of Chonchi.

The earthquake triggered a tsunami warning, leading to the evacuation of 4000 people in the coastal areas of Los Lagos Region, including the towns of Quellón and Chonchi. However, no tsunami waves were reported and the warning was lifted some 90 minutes after the temblor.

Chile’s long history of powerful earthquakes

As recently as September 2015, an 8.3 M tremor hit Illapel, causing 13 casualties, 6 missing and triggering a 4.5 m tsunami wave, with shaking felt as far as Bolivia and Argentina.

A powerful, and destructive, 8.8 M quake struck Maule in February 2010. On land, there was severe loss to infrastructure and housing, while a tsunami wave caused significant damage to coastal areas. Combined, the earthquake and tsunami resulted in the deaths of more than 500 people.

The most powerful tremor ever recorded, the estimated 9.5 M Valdivia earthquake, struck Chile in May 1960. More than 2,000 people were reported dead, a further 3,000 went missing and over 2,000,000 were left homeless. The damage in Southern Chile alone amounted to over $550 million. Tsunami waves generated by the quake struck Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines and the western USA coast, causing a further $50.5 million in damages and killing 231 people.

Damage to houses after the Valdivia earthquake, Chile

Damage to several houses in Chile after the earthquake. Credit: Pierre St. Amand – NGDC Natural Hazards Slides with Captions Header, Public Domain (distributed by Wikimedia Commons)

What causes earthquakes in Chile and what does the future hold?

Chile lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area known for its high seismic and volcanic activity. Here, tectonic plates slide against each other, pull apart or converge and subduct under one another generating geologically active zones.

To understand why powerful earthquakes occur in Chile, we asked Cindy Mora Stock, a seismologist at the University of Concepción (Chile), to give us a more detailed insight into the tectonics of the region:

Earthquakes along the Chilean coast occur at the interface between the South American plate and the subducted Nazca plate. The rapid velocity between these plates (66 – 90 mm/yr) increases the potential for great earthquakes in the region, presenting on average an event of magnitude 8, or larger, every ten years. As a comparison, the Antarctic plate subducts under South American plate at a much slower rate (16 – 22 mm/yr).

The latest Mw 7.6 earthquake near Quellón on 25th of December [1], falls in the central part of the rupture zone (the portion of the fault which slipped during) of  the Valdivia earthquake – roughly 380 km south from Valdivia.

A study by Lange et al in 2007 showed a cluster of four main 4.0 < Ml < 4.4 events and their afteshocks, occurring at the interface between 12-30 km depth, beneath the western coast of Chiloe Island. Another study by Moreno et al in 2011 shows some patches at the interface that ruptured during the previous 1960 event, which are more stuck than other areas at the same interface.

Especially, computer simulations show the interface at the center part of the 1960’s rupture zone is fully locked, this means that part is “stuck”, not moving, and accumulating energy. Zones that present a high locking rate have shown to be prone areas for the nucleation of a great earthquake in the future. Although in all presented scenarios the Chiloe Island presents a high locking rate, this is not enough to state a range of time when an earthquake will occur at this patch.  Considering this, the previous seismicity, and the present Mw7.6 earthquake in the region it might seem like the interface might have ended its and it is starting to build up stress for a future earthquake.

By Laura Roberts, EGU Communications Officer, and Cindy Mora Stock, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Concepcion, Chile.


References and further reading

[1] Intensities of shaking felt after the 25 December earthquake (in Spanish):

[2] Lange, D., Rietbrock, A., Haberland, E., et al.: Seismicity and geometry of the south Chilean subduction zone (41.5°S–43.5°S): Implications for controlling parameters, Geophysical Research Letters, 34, L06311, doi: 0.1029/2006GL029190, 2007

[3] Moreno, M., Melnick, D., Rosenau, M., et al.: Heterogeneous plate locking in the South–Central Chile subduction zone: Building up the next great earthquake, Earth and Planetary Research Letters, 305, 3-4, 413-424, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2011.03.025, 2011 (Paywalled)

USGS overview of M7.6 – 42km SW of Puerto Quellon, Chile (includes shake maps, regional tectonic information and moment tensor details):

Understanding Tectonic Processes Following Great Earthquakes (Eos: Earth & Space Science News)

25 December earthquake in the news:
·         Chile earthquake tsunami warning lifted (BBC News report)
·         Major quake jolts Chile tourist region on Christmas Day (Reuters in-depth news report)
·         Chile jolted by major 7.6-magnitude earthquake (Guardian News)
·         Imagenes del terremoto al sur de Chile (in Spanish: Images of the earthquake in Southern Chile – Gestión, diario de econimía y negocios de Perú)

Imaggeo on Mondays: A look inside a thunderstorm

Imaggeo on Mondays: A look inside a thunderstorm

This week’s contribution to Imaggeo on Mondays is a photograph of a mesocyclone – and its rotating wall cloud – photographed by Mareike Schuster, an atmospheric scientist from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

The picture was taken in June 2012 near Cheyenne, Wyoming in the United States during a field campaign, ROTATE, led by the Center for Severe Weather Research, based in Boulder, Colorado. ROTATE stands for Radar Observations of Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Experiment. The mission aimed at probing the inner workings of tornadoes to better understand the intensity and variability of low level winds in these vortices. The experiment setup included several mobile Doppler radars (DOWs) that would measure the convective storm from a distance, and also multiple “mobile mesonet” vehicles – vehicles equipped with weather observation instruments- whose passengers would deploy numerous so called “tornado pods” right in the pathway of a tornado. The instruments of the pods might have been destroyed but the data was saved on “armored black boxes” for later analysis.

What are mesocyclones?

A mesocyclone is a cyclone that is embedded within a convective storm – together they form a supercell. The mesocyclone is characterized through ascending air, that in most cases rotates cyclonic. If the mesocyclone has large vertical extent and persists long enough it can be detected by a Doppler radar and appears as a couplet of motion (of the water droplets in the storm towards and away from the radar) in the data.

What is a wall cloud?

The mesocyclone becomes visible through a persistent lowering of the cloud base – the wall cloud – caused by the condensation of updrafting air. The so called wall cloud typically forms beneath the rain free base of a supercell and indicates the area of the strongest updraft. Wall clouds are inflow clouds, local and tend to slope inward. Please note that they are often mixed-up with shelf clouds (not shown), which in turn are outflow clouds that have a larger extent and are associated with a different atmospheric feature. A wall cloud can also form below a thunderstorm if there is no rotation – but if it rotates, then this indicates the existence of a mesocyclone. So it was the case in this picture.

Sometimes, tornadoes form within the mesocyclone of a supercell. The mesocyclone shown here, however, did not.

The motion of the supercell in the shot is towards the observer. All the dark clouds in the photograph basically show the wall cloud. The storm is already very close to the observer. The rest of the thunderstorm, e.g. the cumulonimbus cloud and the typical anvil are so large, they are far above and behind the observer and did not fit on the frame. Everything’s bigger in the U.S. !  😉

By Mareike Schuster, Institut für Meteorologie, Freie Universität Berlin


The picture was taken with a Nikon D5100 and a Tamron 10-24mm wide angle lense.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Imaggeo on Mondays: Why does a Norwegian glacier look blue?

Imaggeo on Mondays: Why does a Norwegian glacier look blue?

This picture shows the outlet glacier Engabreen running down from the plateau of Svartisen in Norway. Svartisen ice cap comprises two glacier systems of which the Vestre (western) Svartisen is Norway’s second largest glacier. Located right at the polar circle, Svartisen covers a total of 369 km² of the Nordland region. These coastal mountains accumulate a snowpack of 5-7 m depth through the winter season, which feeds the glaciers.

Actually, Svartisen means black ice. However, the ice of the glacier tongue of Engabreen, an outlet glacier of Svartisen ice cap, looks pretty blue in the flat light of a late afternoon in August.  The ice, which is mostly free of air bubbles, transmits the blue colour more than the rest of the visible spectrum of light. Thus, by having to travel a distance of approx. 3 m through the ice body, the blue light is particularly visible.

More than the colour, it is the hydrology and the ice flow of Engabreen which are studied with attention by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). A tunnel system was built partly underneath the glacier in the 1990’s to collect the waters from Svartisen for hydro power production., The Svartisen Subglacial Laboratory  is located at one end of the tunnel, providing a unique opportunity for direct access to the bed of a temperate glacier. The privileged location means that sub-glacial parameters can be obtained from experiments right at the bottom of a 200 m thick ice pack.

The waters of Holandsfjord have to be crossed to visit the beautiful area of the glacier lake Svartisvatnet and Engabreen. This can be either done by boat shuttle or, as we did, by kayak [ find a magazine article about Kay’s adventure here – in German -].

 By Kay Helfricht, researcher at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Mountain Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria

Editor’s note: this text was revised on Tuesday 25th October 2016 following comments from Terje Solbakk.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at


Geosciences Column: A new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent

Geosciences Column: A new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent

Antarctica has been known as “the frozen continent” for almost as long as we have known of its existence. It may be the only place on Earth where, instead of information on the extent of glaciers or ice caps, there exists a dataset of all non-icy areas compiled from satellite imagery.

However, this repository is far from perfect: while satellite resolution and coverage have been steadily improving, Antarctica is challenging ground for remote sensing. Ice and cloud cover can be difficult to tell apart, and the low position of the sun in the sky means that long shadows can make snow, ice and rock very difficult to distinguish. As a result, the estimates of the ice-free proportion of the Antarctic continent have been vague, ranging from “less than 1%” to 0.4%.

In a new paper published in the journal The Cryosphere, scientists from British Antarctic Survey and the University of Birmingham show that the continent is even icier than previously thought. Using imagery from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite, they find that just 0.18% of the continent are ice-free – less than half of previous estimates. This equates to an area roughly the size of Wales on a continent half again as big as Canada.

Lead author Alex Burton-Johnson and his colleagues have developed a new method of accurately distinguishing between ice, rock, clouds and liquid water on Antarctic satellite imagery. Because of the challenging nature of classifying Antarctic satellite imagery, the researchers used only the highest-quality images: they were mostly taken in midsummer, when the sun describes the highest arc in the sky and shadows are smallest, and on days with low cloud cover.


(Left) The blue squares represent the coverage of the 249 satellite images the researchers used, showing that most rocky areas in Antarctica are clustered along the coastline. The images overlap in many places, allowing for more accurate classification where some clouds occur in pictures. (Right) The new dataset for rock outcrops covers all areas marked in red. The NASA Landsat 8 satellite does not cover areas south of 82°40′ South. Islands such as South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands are too consistently cloudy during the summer period, so the new method cannot be applied here. From : Burton-Johnson et al. (2016).

The huge thickness of the Antarctic ice sheet – more than 4,000m in some places – made the scientists’ job easier: they could exclude large parts of the continent where not even the tallest peaks come close to the ice surface. A total of 249 suitably high-quality images covered those parts of the Antarctic continent that have rock outcrops.

A few locations, however, are too extreme for the new image classification method. Some of the South Orkney Islands and the subantarctic island of South Georgia are covered in heavy cloud for so much of the time even in summer that the researchers could not apply their new method. Here, they had to rely on the older dataset. They also had to exclude parts of the rugged but remote Transantarctic Mountains from the study as the Landsat 8 satellite only covers areas north of 82°40’S.

The code for the new classification methodology is available on GitHub, so that enthusiastic remote sensers can try their hand at further improving it or simply admire the frozen beauty of Antarctica from above.

By Jonathan Fuhrmann


Burton-Johnson, A., Black, M., Fretwell, P. T., and Kaluza-Gilbert, J.: An automated methodology for differentiating rock from snow, clouds and sea in Antarctica from Landsat 8 imagery: a new rock outcrop map and area estimation for the entire Antarctic continent, The Cryosphere, 10, 1665-1677, doi:10.5194/tc-10-1665-2016, 2016.


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