Geological effects of the destructive May 31, 1970, Perú earthquake (Ms = 7.7) extended over roughly 65,000 km2 of west-central Perú. Earthquake-triggered slope failures of all types that occurred throughout the mountainous parts of the region extensively damaged transportation routes and irrigation canals and temporarily dammed some rivers and lakes. The geologically most important and spectacular of these, a cataclysmic debris avalanche from between 5,500 and 6,400 m altitude on the north peak of Huascarán Mountain, buried the city of Yungay and part of Ranrahirca (elevation about 2,500 m) with a loss of more than about 18,000 lives. The debris avalanche involved 50-100 million m3 of rock, ice, snow, and soil that traveled 14.5 km from the source to Yungay at an average velocity of between 280 and 335 km/hr. Exceptionally rapid movement of the avalanche is indicated by eyewitness accounts, by topographic irregularities as high as 140 m that were overridden, and locally by boulders weighing several tons that were hurled as much as 1,000 m beyond its margins. A pulse of muddy water from the debris avalanche that swept down the Río Santa 160 km to the sea inundated farms and small settlements, buried highway and railroad routes, and destroyed the diversion dam and access bridge to a major hydroelectric plant.
The extensive destruction to communities and an additional estimated 20,000 casualties resulted primarily from failure of adobe and masonry structures which had little shear resistance to lateral forces imposed by seismic shaking. The degree of damage to buildings and to transportation routes was aggravated in some areas of saturated unconsolidated deposits by differential compaction, downslope slumping or sliding, lateral spreading of liquefied sediments toward free faces, and possibly amplification of seismic vibrations.
The absence of surface tectonic displacements or of a significant tsunami and the spatial distribution of the main shock and aftershocks suggest that the earthquake originated by movement on a fault, or faults, beneath the continental shelf at depths between 45 and 65 km.