Historic Earthquakes

Arica, Peru (now Chile)
1868 August 13 21:30 UTC
Magnitude 9.0

Two great earthquakes occurred at Arica, Peru (now Chile) that generated catastrophic tsunamis that affected locations throughout the Pacific Basin. The towns of Arica, Arequipa, Moquegua, Mollendo, and Ilo were largely destroyed by the earthquake. In South America, more than 25,000 people were killed from the earthquake and tsunami.

From the National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) Significant Earthquake Database.


1868. 13 August, at 16:45 (local time). Intensity XI earthquake accompanied by a tsunami. The historian Dr. J. Y. Polo refers to this shock as one of the strongest that has been verified in Peru since the Conquest. Macroseismic observations indicate that the center of the earthquake was in the port of Arica. Along the coast it caused much havoc, being felt some 1400 km to the northwest (Samanco, Peru) and at an equal distance to the south (Valdivia, Chile). In Bolivia it was felt 224 km away east of La Paz, in the direction of Cochabamba. In Arequipa, according to witnesses, "the ground creaked and undulated, it being hard to remain standing. Walls fell, and broke into large sections." The radius of the pleistoseismal area was some 700 km2. Within this area there was heavy destruction at Arica, Tacna, Moquegua, Ilo, Torata, and Iquique; the city of Arequipa was in ruins. At Moquegua 150 people died, in Arequipa 10, and Tacna 3. At 17:37 there began am impetuous overflow of the sea. The first wave reached a height of twelve meters, and completely eradicated the harbor of Arica, carrying away on its backwash everything it met in its path. The flux and reflux lasted some 40 minutes. There was a series of strong currents. At 18:50 the sea again invaded with waves 16 meters high. The waters turned and receded. The third wave invaded the land again at 19:10. This last wave stranded the 1560-ton Peruvian corvette "America", the "Wateree" of the United States, and the lighter "Fredonia", which were carried 300 meters inland. The backwash of the sea razed a large part of the Peruvian coast, killing 30 people at Chala, about 100 at Arica, and 200 at Iquique. The agitation of the ocean reached as far as California, Hawaii, Yokohama, the Philippines, Sydney, and New Zealand. It is reported that the earth opened up in various places, spewing out muddy water. The Headland at Arica was fractured, likewise the hills of La Caldera, next to the baths of Yura (Arequipa). About 400 movements or aftershocks were counted up to the 25th of August.

Abridged from Historia de los sismos mas notables ocurridos en el Perú (1513-1970): Geofísica Panamericana, v. 2, no. 1, January 1973, Enrique Silgado F.


In August 1868, an earthquake of about magnitude 9.0 offshore from the Peru-Chile border generated a devastating tsunami. The earthquake and tsunami killed thousands of people along the South American coast. Spreading across the Pacific, it became the largest recorded distant tsunami to strike New Zealand, affecting many ports and causing substantial damage on the Chatham Islands and Banks Peninsula.

The tsunami reached the Chatham Islands around 1 a.m. on 15 August, about 15 hours after the earthquake. Maori at the village of Tupuangi were woken by water surging into their houses and fled to higher ground. Subsequently two larger waves totally destroyed the village and the houses of several European settlers. One Maori drowned, carried out to sea while trying to retrieve a boat that had come adrift. The tsunami also damaged buildings at Waitangi.

Several hours later, on Banks Peninsula in the South Island, a night watchman discovered the ships at Lyttelton's wharves sitting on the mud bottom - the water had drained from the harbour area. Around 4 a.m. a foaming wall of water surged into the harbour, and the water rose by over 7 metres. Ships' hawsers snapped, and the ships were dashed against the wharves and each other, causing heavy damage. The sea gradually receded, but more big waves rolled in at intervals of several hours, and water levels rose and fell erratically over several days. In smaller bays around the peninsula, tsunami waves penetrated far inland along valleys, damaging homes and carrying away bridges and fences.

Abrigded from New Zealand's tsunami history, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.


1868, August 13, 21:30 and August 14, 01:30. At about 4:45 P.M. and again at about 8:45 P.M., (71° W Sun time which converts to about 21:30 and 01:30 UTC) catastrophic tsunamis that affected locations throughout the Pacific Basin were generated at Arica, near the coast of southern Peru (now Chile). Waves from the first (magnitude 8.5) event arrived at the Hawaiian Islands about 1:00 A.M. local time and from the second at 5:00 A.M. August 14. Following is a list of locations in Hawaii that were affected by the wave. (Soloviev and Go, 1975, p. 74)

Hilo, Hawaii: From 2:00 A.M. (the first tsunami) on the 14th until the 16th of August, the sea was in constant movement. The period was 10 minutes. Judging by a mark left on a coconut tree and by other data, the water rose 1.5 m higher than regular flood tides, but according to Hitchcock (1909) it was 4.5 m above normal low tide. Along the Waiohi River at Waiakea, the water apparently rose higher and washed out a bridge. (Soloviev and Go, 1975, p. 89) Severe damage was reported by Iida et al. (1967), but no detail was given. At Kalapana, Hawaii, waves of 1.2 to 1.8 m flooded eight hectares (20 acres) of dry land. (Pararas-Carayannis and Calebaugh, 1977)

Kahului, Maui: The first oscillations in sea level came at dawn on the 14th and lasted all day. This would probably refer to the second tsunami. The reefs and rocks in the harbor dried up as the water level rose and fell about 3.6 m (range). The maximum oscillations were observed at 7:00 and 11:00 A.M. (Soloviev and Go, 1975, p. 89) Considerable damage is reported by Iida et al. (1967), but no details are given.

Molokai: On the 14th, about 10:00 A.M., the flood tide exceeded the usual tide mark by about 1.2 m. In the next 4 hours the sea rose and fell 12 times. The water rose so high that two houses in Kanaio were flooded, and the inhabitants collected fish in the dry places at ebb tide. The oscillations in level lasted two more days with a gradually increasing period. Note that Pukui, et al. (1974) locate Kanaio on Maui.

Honolulu, Oahu: The local residents at Fisherman's Spit, in the southern part of the city, noticed that the sea rose above its usual tide mark at about 9:00 P.M. on the 13th. The water reached the thresholds, but did not flood any houses. (This seems too early as the waves from the earlier earthquake would be expected about 1:00 or 1:30 A.M. and about 5:00 or 5:30 A.M.) At about midnight the residents were awakened by a terrible roar produced by the retreating Ocean passing over the reefs. The sea continued to rise and fall from the first tsunami. About 7:00 A.M. on the 14th a strong ebb tide was observed in which the water level fell 1.1 m from its highest position probably from the second tsunami. Then the ocean fell and rose every 15 to 20 minutes. At 2:35 P.M. the greatest rise, 1.6 m above the highest high tide mark, occurred. During the rise, water flowed into the harbor through the channel entrance with great velocity, and rapids formed at the embankment in the northern part of the harbor.

In Waimea Bay on the southwest coast of Kauai Island. on the 14th between 10:00 A.M. and 400 P.M., the sea rose and fell about 1.8 m (range). (Soloviev and Go, 1975, p. 74, 89, 90)

Many sources (Cox and Pararas-Carayannis (1976), Pararas-Carayannis and Calebaugh (1977). Iida et al. (1967), Lockridge (1985) quote 16:45 origin time as UTC, but this is the local time. Rear Admiral L.G. Billings, commander of the U.S.S. Wateree, reports the first shock at "about 4:00 P.M." A tsunami sank the United States store ship Fredonia and others in the harbor shortly thereafter. At about 8:30 P.M. huge waves carried the Wateree, a flat-bottomed vessel, some 0.4 km inland according to Cox and Pararas-Carayannis, (1976). Billings (1915) reported that the ship had been carried 2 miles (3.2 km) inland but this is an exaggeration.

From United States Tsunamis (including United States possessions) 1690-1988, Publication 41-2, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lander, James F., and Lockridge, Patricia A., 1989.


August 8, 1868. This tsunami followed an earthquake which devastated Arica - then in Peru, but now, after settlement of a long-standing boundary dispute, in Chile. Practically the whole Pacific Ocean was disturbed. The waves were damaging at Hawaii, and high in the region of New Zealand; on the Japanese coast they caused considerable alarm. At Arica the ocean was greatly disturbed and retired, coming back in a succession of waves. The greatest wave came in about 4 hours after the earthquake, wrecking most of the ships in the harbor, overwhelming the city, and rising to a height of at least 47 feet. The U.S. gunboat Wateree was carried 3 miles up the coast and 2 miles inland, to within 200 feet of a sheer cliff; here it rested safely on its flat bottom, but it had to be abandoned. An officer of the Wateree, L.G. Billings, who later became a rear admiral, in 1915 published a horrifying account of this experience.

Abridged from Richter, Charles F., 1958, Elementary seismology: San Francisco, W.H. Freeman and Company, 768 p.