A tsunami is rare in Australia, but when it does, it poses a major threat to our coastal population. Looking at past events helps us understand how a tsunami will affect Australia in the future. The 1960 Chile earthquake and subsequent tsunami showed us how far the tsunami could travel, as the waves reach Australia from more than 11,000 km – a powerful reminder that despite lower opportunities, we need to prepare.
Sixty years ago, at 7:11 pm GMT on May 22, 1960, the strongest earthquake recorded along the southern coast of Chile struck. Estimates recorded at that time between 9.4 and 9.6 for about 10 minutes.
The earthquake triggered a series of tsunami waves, as the waves reached a height of 25 meters along the Chilean coast, and traveled across the Pacific Ocean to Japan, Hawaii, the Philippines and Australia. The resulting waves were also recorded by the tidal gauge in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans making this the first global tsunami.
The death toll and global damages caused by the earthquake and tsunami are unknown, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 7,000 people lost, and compensation equivalent to 3.5-6.9 billion US dollars today.
For Australia, this event showed us how far the tidal waves from the earthquake could reach, as waves travel more than 11,000 km to the east coast of Australia in just 14 hours. The abnormal tide was widely recorded along the southeast coast, where traces were captured by tidal gauges up to Cairns in the north, Hobart in the south and Fremantle in the west. In New South Wales, tidal gauges recorded peak-to-basin waves of up to 1.7 meters with observers reports waves of 3-4.3 meters at some estuaries and isolated locations.
Lisa Carson, head of the Geological Society Safety Branch in Australia, said that while the effects of the 1960 Chile earthquake and tsunami were slight in Australia compared to other countries, this event is a stark reminder that earthquakes and tsunamis occur suddenly at any time, and cause great damage.
“If the 1960 earthquake in Chile occurred a few thousand kilometers north, the impact of the tsunami on Australia would have been much worse,” said Ms. Carson.
“A tsunami from anywhere across the Indian and Pacific oceans has the potential to affect Australia.
“The events of 1960 showed us how large earthquakes can reach – and how far the waves can travel. Knowing this information helps us identify places in Australia that are likely to be affected by the tsunami, even from earthquakes that may occur as far away as South America. Or the Middle East. “
This historic event provided insights and important data that are still helping to inform the tsunami models today. The Australian Earth Science Potential Tsunami Risk Assessment (PTHA) tool uses data from the previous tsunami and earthquake events – including 1960 Chile events – to predict the possibility of a tsunami of various sizes around the Australian coast.
PTHA relies on tsunami behavior caused by subduction earthquakes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans – the most common cause of tsunami in the Australian region.
When combined with local terrain and near-shore bathymetry data, PTHA allows users to create scenarios to assess the impacts that a tsunami could have on their area.
“Geoscience Australia works with all levels of government and emergency services to help them use PTHA to inform their decisions, planning and emergency actions,” said Ms. Carson.
“This nationally consistent approach helps Australia understand and prepare for future tsunami risks, which we know can have devastating effects on countries from very long distances.
“Fortunately for us, a rare tsunami is in Australia, but if an alert is raised, it is important that you take it seriously.”
The Australian Common Tsunami Warning Center identifies tsunami threats from earthquake sources and identifies their severity to relevant coastal areas around Australia. The meteorological office issues tsunami warnings to the public via radio, television, or 1300 TSUNAMI or www.bom.gov.au/tsunami.
If a tsunami warning is raised in your area, listen and respond to local emergency services.
Geoscience Australia helps Australia prepare for risks like a tsunami. We provide reliable and independent information and advice to the Australian government and maintain our systems for natural disaster preparedness, response, recovery and improvement.
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