The Devastating Earthquake Ring of Fire

The earthquake ring of fire is a zone of tectonic activity that has shaped the Earth’s surface and continues to shape it today. The movement of the Earth’s plates creates earthquakes, and the earthquake ring of fire is where the most powerful of these tremblors happen. The ring of fire has also created some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring landscapes on the planet, from the Andes Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands.

A Map of the Ring of Fire

The recent earthquake in Chile has brought the earthquake ring of fire back into the spotlight. The Pacific Ring of Fire, also known as the earthquake ring of fire, stretches from South America, where the Nazca plate dips beneath the South American Plate, and runs north along the Pacific coasts of Central and North America up to Alaska. It then crosses over to the coasts of Asia all the way south to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. It is along these fault lines that 75% of the world’s active and dormant volcanoes rest. It is also where a staggering 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur.

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A Map of the Ring of Fire
A Map of the Earthquake Ring of Fire

What’s The Ring of Fire?

To understand the Ring of Fire you must first explore plate tectonic theory as its likely cause. Some of you may say “what theory?” yes as incredible as it may sound plate tectonic theory, also known as continental drift theory, is still a relatively new idea that has just begun to be researched intensely within the last 80 years, even though it is almost regarded as common knowledge by the public.

It all goes back to 1912, when Alfred Wegener had this crazy idea looking at a map of the world. What he saw was continents that seemed to almost fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. He continued his research and came up with idea that millions of years ago there was a super continent on Earth, he named it Pangaea, meaning “all lands”.

He thought that due to the Earths rotation the huge landmass had broke up into pieces which began to drift apart, he called this his continental drift theory and presented it to a scientific community which wasn’t quite ready to listen to the theory, he was dismissed and no one was the wiser. Wegener had no proof of his theory after all and it wouldn’t be until 1929 that scientists would revisit the crazy idea.

What's the Ring of Fire?
Continental Drift created Earth’s Earthquake Ring of Fire

In comes Arthur Holmes who building on the research of Wegener tried to explain to the scientific community that the formations of mountains and volcanoes, as well as the cause for earthquakes could be connected with Wegeners other theory of thermal convection and its currents as the cause for continental drift. In short there is a molten sea underneath us with it’s own currents that move the landmasses (tectonic plates) on top of them.

It is through the collision of these plates that mountain ranges are formed as they grind together skyward, kind of like when you shuffle two decks of cards together. Well amazingly the scientific community was still not ready for this theory and once again dismissed it as bologne. It would would be another 30 years and advances in technology and exploration of the ocean floor that would finally convince scientists that Wegener and Holmes were on to something.

Volcanoes on the Ring of Fire
Volcanoes on the Ring of Fire

The discovery of underwater volcanoes in the Atlantic, mountain chains and trenches beneath the pacific solidified Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics. It is the movement of the Nazca Plate rubbing against the South American plate that caused the 8.8 earthquake in Chile, and hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of other earthquakes in the past.

The Ring of Destruction

The Earthquake Ring of Fire - San Francisco
1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Perhaps the most significant events in American history regarding the Ring of Fire have been the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the eruption of Mount Saint Helen. The Great Quake of 1906 measured in at 7.8 on the Richter scale and is remembered as the most devastating natural disaster in the History of the United States. While Mount St. Helen was equally the most destructive and deadly volcanic event in US history. Mount St. Helen today is just one of a chain of 160 active volcanoes in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

earthquake ring of fire
1970 Ancash, Peru.

Peru as well has seen its cities crumble to the ground. We seem to experience a major earthquake about every 20 years or so. In fact in the last 100 years alone Peru has had 7 earthquakes with the magnitudes of over 8.0 on the Richter scale. Our most recent was on August 15th, 2007 when a 8.0 Earthquake leveled the towns of Chincha and Pisco to the South of Lima, 514 people lost their lives. Relatively small to the quake of 1970 when a 7.9 earthquake leveled towns in the Province of Ancash, 66,000 souls were taken that day.

chilean earthquake ring of fire
A man holds up a Chilean flag in a flooded area after the 8.8-magnitude Chile earthquake, 200 miles southwest of Santiago, Sunday. Roberto Candia/AP

Chile meanwhile has had 5 earthquakes in the last 100 years that have been over 8.0 including the strongest ever recorded, measuring in at 9.5 on the Richter scale. The quake occurred on May 22nd, 1960 and took the lives of 1,655 people, including 138 dead in Japan and 32 dead in the Philippines due to the tsunami that followed. For that reason tsunami warnings were quickly posted after Saturdays quakes, to avoid any loss of life.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed over 200,000 people. It was caused by the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake which measured in at 9.3 on the Richter scale.

The Ocean Wall: Tsunamis

Earthquakes and deep ocean volcanic eruptions due to continental drifts can trigger tsunamis of incredible size and destruction. They occur when there is displacement of a large volume of water, creating waves that as they approach land flow straight instead of in a natural circular motion. On open ocean tsunamis are hardly noticeable, not reaching more then 12 inches in height, however as they approach land and shallow water they can grow as large as 50 ft high.

tsunami earthquake ring of fire
beach before tsunami
The Earthquake Ring of Fire can cause Tsunamis, catching beachgoers off guard.

As the tsunami approaches, drawback is commonly seen on the coast and serves as a warning sign for a tsunami. It occurs when a tsunami’s trough reaches the land before it’s peak.

Volcanoes on the Ring of Fire

The 452 Volcanoes that make up the ring of fire are also responsible for the name. These volcanoes release the pressure from the underground molten sea between tectonic plates. These volcanoes can be seen from space as running in a straight line and side by side.

The Pacific Ring of Fire is home to many notable volcanoes, each with their own unique characteristics and history. One of the most well-known volcanoes on the ring of fire is Mount Fuji in Japan. This stratovolcano, which last erupted in 1707, is the highest mountain in Japan and is considered a sacred site by many. Mount Fuji is also a popular tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors each year who come to hike to the summit or view the volcano from nearby hot springs.

Another notable volcano on the ring of fire is Mount St. Helens in Washington, USA. This stratovolcano is most famous for its catastrophic eruption in 1980, which caused 57 deaths and caused over a billion dollars in damage. The eruption also created a massive crater and changed the surrounding landscape. Today, Mount St. Helens is a popular destination for hikers and scientists who study the volcano’s ongoing activity and recovery of the surrounding area.

Powerful eruptions are common as was the case with Mount St. Helens and more recently Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985 which killed 23,000 people.

volcanoes on the ring of fire satellite
Volcanoes on the Earthquake Ring of Fire as seen from space.

Prevention and Adaptation

Prevention and adaptation to natural disasters on the Pacific Earthquake Ring of Fire are crucial in order to minimize loss of life and property. Engineers and city planners must take into account their locations within the ring when designing and building infrastructure. This includes designing buildings and structures that can withstand earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as creating evacuation plans and emergency response procedures.

Preparedness and early warning systems also play a key role in reducing the impact of natural disasters on the ring of fire. For example, Chile has a well-established seismic early warning system, which allows for the rapid detection of earthquakes and the immediate dissemination of warning messages to the public. This can give people valuable seconds to take cover and protect themselves during an earthquake. Additionally, Chile has strict building codes and regulations that require new buildings to be built to withstand seismic activity.

It’s important to note that preparedness and mitigation measures are not only the responsibility of the government and experts, but also citizens. Regular drills, education and training on emergency preparedness and disaster risk reduction can empower communities to be better prepared and resilient when a disaster strikes. This is also why investing in research, monitoring and prediction of natural hazards are important as it allows for better decision making and risk management.

Even though the recent earthquake in Chile has caused significant damage, it did not claim as many lives or cause as much destruction as the earthquake in Haiti. This is largely due to the fact that Chile has a history of dealing with earthquakes and has implemented measures to reduce the impact of seismic activity.

About the Author

Founder of Karikuy, an organization in Peru that brings travelers to visit and explore the country. Julio also runs the Karikuy Volunteer program and is the editor of this blog. Julio likes to write about his adventures in Peru as well as Peruvian folklore, mysteries and secluded locations.

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