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Chile Observatories Earthquake Preparedness Workshop Dec. 3-4, 2007

December 1, 2007

Jean-René Roy, Mike Sheehan and Pete McEvoy

Gemini Observatory

On December 3-4, 2007, more than 70 engineers, technicians, safety officers and coordinators, administrative personnel and astronomers from observatories around the world met in La Serena, Chile for the first Chile Observatory Earthquake Preparedness Workshop. The goal of the workshop was to develop better means to protect our staff and our valued equipment in case of a major earthquake.

Chile has one of the highest rates of seismicity in the world and was in fact the location of the most intense earthquake ever recorded; the M9.5 earthquake in 1960, which, combined with its resulting tsunami, caused thousand deaths and devastation in Chile, Hawai‘i, the Philippines, Easter Island and Samoa. Astronomical Observatories in Chile will experience the effects of one or more major earthquakes in their lifetimes and we need to be prepared. About two weeks before the workshop, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit in the region around the northern town of Tocopilla, which destroyed or damaged several thousand homes, displacing about 15,000 people [1]. Although the earthquake was strongly felt at ESO/Paranal and at the Alma site of San Pedro, there was no damage at either site. Still this was a strong reminder that we operate in areas of high seismic risk. The Chilean active tectonic and seismic context was described in detail by Universidad de Chile Geophysicist and Seismologist, Sergio Barrientos, in a stunning and most informative review of Chilean seismicity.

The workshop participants were mainly from the large observatories operating in Chile, including: European Southern Observatory (Paranal and La Silla), Las Campanas Observatory, Gemini Observatory, Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory, SOAR and ALMA. There was also strong representation from observatories planning (or considering) construction in Chile, in particular the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Also attending were participants from the local observatory support organization (AOSS) and Region IV emergency response agencies.

Following the advice, “Use the calm between the storms” [2], the workshop participants addressed several of the lessons learned from the Hawai‘i Big Island 6.7 magnitude earthquake of October 15, 2006. This earthquake affected several Mauna Kea observatories, including both the telescope facilities on the mountain and the office headquarters in Waimea, Hawai‘i. Derrick Salmon, Chief Engineer of the Canada-France-Hawai‘i acted as the spokesperson for the Mauna Kea observatories and reviewed the impact of the October 2006 earthquake on the Mauna Kea observatories.

Science has many roles in the forecasting and mitigation of natural hazards. The workshop participants provided unique perspectives and advice on the technological and organizational solutions for giving early warning, identifying areas at risk, designing effective mitigation strategies and developing approaches to relief in the context of our observatory systems.

This workshop addressed the technical issues associated with keeping structures and infrastructure intact and the safety and health issues for affected personnel prior to, during and after a severe earthquake. In addition to covering seismicity in Chile, discussions also included:

  • inspections necessary for identifying structures and equipment that may be vulnerable to severe ground motion;
  • resources available aid in seismic retrofit;
  • ground motion sensing and sensor networks throughout Chile;
  • advance safety planning;
  • actions necessary during and immediately after a large earthquake and;
  • post-earthquake recovery.

Over a period of two days, the attendees reviewed this information with focused presentations, general discussion and several small working groups covering specific issues. The outcome of the workshop is a heightened sense of awareness of the seismic threat that we face, the initiation of collaborations where appropriate and concrete steps toward the mitigation of the seismic risks that we all face. Some follow-up actions were taken by the organizers and the participants of the workshop.

More details about the workshop can be found at:

Participants in the December 3-4 Earthquake Preparedness Workshop in Chile.