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2016 earthquake devastated Ecuador’s north coast but how vulnerable is the rest of the country?

By Liam Higgins

According to the record, the deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Ecuador’s northern coast is a once-every-50-to-100-year event. The quake killed more than 600, destroyed or severely damaged 45,000 structures, and left 30,000 people homeless.

Earthquake damage near Manta in 2016.

“This was an earthquake of historic proportions,” said Alexandra Alvarado of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute. “It’s terrible power reminds us that we must always be prepared in Ecuador, especially on the coast. This is the area that is most prone to large earthquakes due to the subduction zone between continental plates,” she says.

So, what is the vulnerability of other areas of Ecuador to powerful earthquakes? Are Quito or Cuenca at risk for a “big one” of their own?

The historic record and modern research show that vulnerability varies significantly from one part of the country to another. The coast is more vulnerable than Quito, for example, and Quito is more vulnerable than Cuenca.

Ecuador lies on the eastern rim of the seismically active area known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. There have been at least 38 earthquakes estimated to be of magnitude 7 or higher on the Richter Scale since 1541, when written records by the Spanish were first kept, the institute says. The government estimates that more than 80,000 people died in those quakes.

A police officers observes the damage in Perdanales.

It is important, officials say, that residents know the level of risk of the areas where they live. For example, Manta is at high risk for a catastrophic earthquake whereas Cuenca is at relatively low risk. Countrywide, the area of greatest risk, says the institute, is the coast, particularly the area from Manta to the Colombian border. Other areas at higher risk include the northern Andes, including the cities of Ibarra, Ambato, Riobamba and Quito. The area of lowest risk is the far-eastern portion of the Ecuador’s Amazon region.

An overview of relative risk is shown in a earthquake risk map developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGA is currently revising the map based on data collected in the 2016 earthquake. A USGA spokesman said that, based on information gathered after 2016, the extreme danger zone will be extended south on the coast to include the Santa Elena peninsula.

One of the six most powerful quakes in history struck the northern coast of Ecuador in 1906, killing 2,000 near Esmeraldas and sending a tsunami across the Pacific Ocean that killed hundreds more in Hawaii and Japan. The quake measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, equaling the powerful 2014 quake in Chile.

Article continues below graphic.

Earthquake risk

The town of Pedernales, the epicenter of the 2016 earthquake, suffered a 7.8 quake in 1942 but, because of the quake’s depth and lack of population in the area at the time, no deaths were reported

Several other strong earthquakes have occurred near the Ecuador-Colombian border during the last century. A powerful 8.2 earthquake 20 miles north of the border generated a tsunami in 1979 killed an estimated 400 people, mostly in Colombia.

Homeless residents in Manta await help.

Another powerful earthquake, measuring 7.2, hit 80 miles south of the 2016 quake, in 1998, devastating Bahia de Caraquez. Sixteen years later, many buildings in Bahia still showed the scars of that quake when the 2016 quake occurred.

In the Andes, Riobamba, Ambato and Ibarra have been destroyed by large earthquakes in the 19th and 20th century while Quito has suffered serious damage on three occasions. Ambato still shows damage from a 1949 quake that registered 6.8 magnitude and killed more than 5,000.

“No area of Ecuador is entirely free from danger except for the eastern Amazonia,” says Institute director Hugo Yepes, “but we know that some areas, because of geology and geography, are in much more danger than others and that is where we need to focus our attention. Even though we put the Northern Andes in the same zone as some of the coast, the coast is actually much more vulnerable,” says Yepes. “Not only will the quakes there be of greater magnitude but because they often occur offshore, there is a risk of tsunamis.”

According to Yepes and Geophysical Institute records, the area least vulnerable to earthquakes, outside of the Amazon, is the southern Andes. “In recorded history, Cuenca has not suffered a destructive earthquake and it has been more than 400 years since Loja has seen serious damage.”

Yepes explains that the southern Andes are older, with more settled geology and are consequently less seismically active. Cajas National Park, to the west of Cuenca, is one of the oldest regions of the Andes mountain chain.

Institute officials say that Cuenca has seen a number of earthquakes over the years estimated in the 3.9 to 4.2 magnitude range, the most recent in 2010. The strongest, estimated at 4.2, occurred in 1885 and destroyed several mud structures in the historic district. “Since the Spanish arrived almost 500 years ago, Cuenca has probably not had an earthquake above the mid-4’s magnitude,” says Yepes. “This is why so many of its historic buildings remain intact.”

15 thoughts on “2016 earthquake devastated Ecuador’s north coast but how vulnerable is the rest of the country?

  1. Thank you for these very informative articles. I need to know about the good things and definitely the not so good things that happen in the city of Cuenca. I have pretty much decided to retire there. Keep the information coming.

    1. Hi Carol,
      Don’t know if you are still following this thread but I have decided to retire to Cuenca in September/October this year. Wondered if you ever made it there or decided on another location?

  2. Excellent informative article, thanks! I lived in Southern California for many years–my first earthquake was the Whittier quake–depending on whose measurements–5.1-5.9. It caused 8 fatalities, injured several hundred, & left property damage estimated at $358 million in the east Los Angeles area. My last BIG one was the Northridge quake in ’94– 6.7 & 11 miles deep–it toppled freeways, ignited fires, killed dozens of Angelenos, & cost $49 billion in overall damage to homes & businesses. So the temblors I’ve felt in Cuenca have really felt like ‘baby temblers’ to me, & I assumed that Cuenca must not be a high danger zone BECAUSE of all the intact old architecture! Knowing climate & geological conditions is pretty important & VERY USEFUL in considering which parts of the country to explore to settle in! Well done!

  3. Cuenca is safe because we haven’t had a major earthquake for over 500 years. Just remember, major earthquakes have destroyed cities near Cuenca to the north and south of us. Cuenca has always been spared. Just proves that Cuenca is special! Nothing bad can happen here because it hasn’t happened in our recorded history. Sounds like we are due a big one. My advice is to be prepared in case the prevailing logic is incorrect. Geology has its own rules. Don’t worry about it, just keep basic provisions, food, water, candles, first aid kits in the event a disaster should strike. No one is immune and we still live in an exciting area that experiences change.

    1. you missed the most important advise: live in tents!! If they collapse… so it be… no one will be ijured… right??

      1. That is good! Now we only need running water, some heating and basic security for the goodies in the tent!

    2. Not having a major earthquake for over 500 years doesn’t make a place safe. It also doesn’t make a place due. Probabilities are difficult for people to understand. That’s why casinos make so much money.

      Proper construction and contingency plans make a place safe. Cuenca, like any city on the Ring of Fire, is due for a major quake. It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when”. It’s inevitable when you live on the crease of the planet. However, disasters are not natural. Earthquakes don’t kill people. Shoddy construction and lack of risk management does.

  4. Thank you so deeply and sincerely for the articles that you post. They are so informative, you do an amazing job! Could you please tell me about the water quality in Vilcabamba, since the oil drilling? Does the drilling still continue? Thank you so much again. Pam

  5. Thanks for publishing this article. We felt yesterday’s 7.8 quake located on the coast here in Cuenca. It wasn’t a violent shaking, more like a persistent “jiggling”, but it lasted almost a full minute and it was pretty frightening.

  6. WHY WAS CUENCA SPARED? because it is so special and filled with big special gringo expats and its the best and the first and OMG!!!

    do you think you could grow up just long enough to think of others, for a bit? at least during a vast emergency? nahh, i don’t think so either.

    it just occurred to me what you could do to help……

      1. your skull and bones image is… interesting… i suggest you write your own comments, rather than piggy backing off others. i already used the childish issue in my post.
        sure hope you have started helping your hosts, the newly homeless due to the earthquake??

  7. But, alas there is Donnal Trimp and you are not safe anywhere in the world for that – look out incoming !!! 🙂

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