US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Geophysical Journal International, (2010) 181, 1613-1633; doi: 10.1111/j.1365-246X.2010.04569.x


The whole territory of Ecuador is exposed to seismic hazard. Great earthquakes can occur in the subduction zone (e.g. Esmeraldas, 1906, Mw 8.8), whereas lower magnitude but shallower and potentially more destructive earthquakes can occur in the highlands. This study focuses on the historical crustal earthquakes of the Andean Cordillera. Several large cities are located in the Interandean Valley, among them Quito, the capital (∼2.5 million inhabitants). A total population of∼ 6 million inhabitants currently live in the highlands, raising the seismic risk. At present, precise instrumental data for the Ecuadorian territory is not available for periods earlier than 1990 (beginning date of the revised instrumental Ecuadorian seismic catalogue); therefore historical data are of utmost importance for assessing seismic hazard. In this study, the Bakun & Wentworth method is applied in order to determine magnitudes, locations, and associated uncertainties for historical earthquakes of the Sierra over the period 1587–1976. An intensity magnitude equation is derived from the four most reliable instrumental earthquakes (Mw between 5.3 and 7.1). Intensity data available per historical earthquake vary between 10 (Quito, 1587, Intensity ≥VI) and 117 (Riobamba, 1797, Intensity ≥III). The bootstrap resampling technique is coupled to the B&W method for deriving geographical confidence contours for the intensity centre depending on the data set of each earthquake, as well as confidence intervals for the magnitude. The extension of the area delineating the intensity centre location at the 67 per cent confidence level (±1σ) depends on the amount of intensity data, on their internal coherence, on the number of intensity degrees available, and on their spatial distribution. Special attention is dedicated to the few earthquakes described by intensities reaching IX, X and XI degrees. Twenty-five events are studied, and nineteen new epicentral locations are obtained, yielding equivalent moment magnitudes between 5.0 and 7.6. Large earthquakes seem to be related to strike slip faults between the North Andean Block and stable South America to the east, while moderate earthquakes (Mw ≤ 6) seem to be associated with to thrust faults located on the western internal slopes of the Interandean Valley.