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The Mexico City earthquake, 19 September 1985

As a volcanologist based in the UK, I am in the privileged position of rarely being affected by the natural events that I study. And, although I have worked for extended periods of time in earthquake-prone regions, I have never experienced anything more than the gentle nudge of a small tremor.

Thirty years ago, shortly after 7 am local time on 19 September 1985, Mexico City was struck by a large earthquake. The epicentre was near the Pacific coast, and the main event had a magnitude of 8 – just a little less than the September 2015 Illapel earthquake in Chile. Listening in the UK to BBC reports, it soon became clear that there was a terrible disaster unfolding – even though the conurbation was hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre, there was considerable damage to hundreds of buildings across the city. Later analysis revealed an unusual feature of the damage – most of the buildings that collapsed were 5 – 20 stories high; while the majority of both shorter, and taller, buildings were undamaged. This feature arose from the local geology – much of the city is built across old lake deposits. The layer of lake sediments acted to amplify the ground motion as the seismic waves passed by, leading to strong accelerations, and a characteristic period of around 2 seconds. Buildings with a natural period of vibration close to 2 seconds would have begun to resonate, and eventually fail catastrophically, as the strong shaking continued for several minutes. The result of this was a shocking pattern across the city of collapsed buildings cheek by jowl with others that showed no signs of damage.

Among the many thousands who lost their lives were several British language students, who had just arrived in Mexico City on their way to their ‘year abroad’ teaching assignments across Latin America. One, Helen Cawthray, was a linguist at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; a contemporary and friend of mine. Another, Susan Mell, was a linguist at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where I now teach Earth Sciences. A poignant reminder not only of the random element of disasters, but also of their global reach. As we look back on the thirty years that have passed, the question remains: have the lessons been learned? Or might it all happen again?

Simple memorial to Sue Mell, undergraduate at St Anne's College, Oxford.

Maria Graham, and a large earthquake in Chile, 1822

Maria Graham, and a large earthquake in Chile, 1822

As news comes in of another very large earthquake in Chile – the third magnitude 8 earthquake along Chile’s Pacific margin in the past six years – this is a stark reminder of the destructive potential of these extreme natural events. These days we are used to the rapid, or near-real-time diffusion of news as these events unfold – in this case, as the tsunami ran along the Chilean coast, and propagated across the Pacific ocean. First indications are that the region that ruptured during the earthquake was a large section of the subduction zone plate boundary where the Nazca tectonic plate is sliding beneath the South American plate; close to an area that previously ruptured in great earthquakes in 1943, 1906, 1880 and 1822.

Map of historical rupture zones of large Chilean earthquakes. Source: United States Geological Survey.

Map of historical rupture zones of large Chilean earthquakes. The red dots show the locations of the 16 September 2015 earthquake and early aftershocks. Source: United States Geological Survey.

One of the earliest first-hand accounts in English of a large earthquake in this part of Chile comes from the writings of Maria Graham, who was living near Valparaiso in 1822; close to the source of the great earthquake of 19th November 1822, and within the region that was most hard hit by the event. Her journal – published in 1824 – records the event in great detail; and in particular, describes the dramatic coastal uplift that occurred as an immediate consequence of the event. A version of her report was later read to the Geological Society of London, where it caused a good deal of interest and, later, controversy.

View from Maria Graham's house. Bodleian libraries, Oxford, 4° R 56 Jur.

View from Maria Graham’s house. Bodleian libraries, Oxford, 4° R 56 Jur

Excerpts from Maria Graham’s ‘Journal of a residence in Chile, during the year 1822; and a voyage from Chile to Brazil, in 1823’,  London, 1824

November 20th, 1822.

At a quarter past ten [in the evening], the house received a violent shock, with a noise like the explosion of a mine. I sat still.. until, the vibration still increasing, the chimneys fell, and I saw the walls of the house open.. We jumped down to the ground, and were scarcely there when the motion of the earth changed from a quick vibration to a rolling like that of a ship at sea. The shock lasted three minutes. Never shall I forget the horrible sensation of that night. [Back in the house] I observed that the furniture in the different rooms .. Had all been moved in the same direction, and found that direction to be north-west and south-east.

Mr Cruikshank has ridden over from old Quintero: he tells us that there are large rents along the sea shore; and during the night the sea seems to have receded in an extraordinary manner, and especially in Quintero Bay. I see from the hill, rocks above the water that never were exposed before.

On the night of the nineteenth, during the first great shock, the sea in Valparaiso bay rose suddenly, and as suddenly retired in an extraordinary manner, and in about a quarter of an hour seemed to recover its equilibrium; but the whole shore is more exposed and the rocks are about four feet higher out of the water than before.

View of Quintero Bay

View of Quintero Bay, drawn by Maria Graham. Bodleian libraries, Oxford, 4° R 56 Jur.

December 9th, 1822.

in the evening I had a pleasant walk to the beach with Lord Cochrane; we went chiefly for the purpose of tracing the effects of the earthquake along the rocks. On the beach, though it is high water, many rocks with beds of muscles remain dry, and the fish are dead; which proves that the beach is raised about four feet at the Herradura. Above these recent shells, beds of older ones may be traced at various heights along the shore; and such are found near the summits of some of the loftiest hills in Chile.

In her journal accounts, Graham went on to speculate that repeated earthquakes could be responsible for the general elevation of land, and the building of mountains, in places like the Andes; themes that were later taken up by Charles Lyell, and then Charles Darwin – who was in Chile 13 years later, where he experienced the 1835 Concepcion earthquake firsthand.


IRIS Special Event Page, Illapel – great collection of resources on the Illapel earthquake

United States Geological Survey – Illapel earthquake information

The Maria Graham Project, Nottingham Trent University

Profile of Maria Graham on TrowelBlazers


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