Shorter days ahead: how the earthquake in Chile affected us all

Do you think Saturday’s massive earthquake in Chile didn’t affect you?  Think again. 

A brand new report from NASA found that the 8.8-magnitude quake shifted the Earth’s axis, shortening the length of every subsequent day by 1.26 microseconds (for reference, a microsecond is one millionth of a second).  Though that may not sound like a lot—it’s less than the blink of any eye—it is nonetheless significant, and it is permanent. 

The same researchers also found that the earthquake shifted such a massive amount of land that it moved the Earth’s figure axis by 3 inches, or 8 centimeters.  (The figure axis is the axis around which the Earth’s mass is balanced, and is different from its north-south spinning or rotational axis.)  To compare, the larger 9.1-magnitude earthquake in Sumatra in 2004 produced a smaller shift in the figure axis (2.76 inches, or 7 centimeters) than Saturday’s quake in Chile because this earlier one was closer to the equator and on a less-steep fault line.  

In addition to the report, NASA also has several great images of the event, including these two birds-eye-view photographs of Santiago before and after the earthquake:

NASA aerial Santiago 2.23.10 2.23.10

NASA aerial Santiago 2.27.102.27.10

photos courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory

Now, three and a half days after the first tremors started, personal accounts and videos of that morning are all over the internet.  Many are sad and horrifying, others are hopeful and surprising.  But it’s apparent from all of these stories that this event will affect people in Chile for many years to come.

It’s also clear, thanks to NASA’s report, that this earthquake didn’t only hit Chile.  In fact, it will affect all of us on this planet, every single day, for the rest of our lives.   

About the Authors

Amanda Maxwell

Director, Latin America Project

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