Natural Disasters in Argentina: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Argentina is an incredibly attractive tourist destination, with the number of people choosing to vacation here constantly growing. Tourists are drawn to the country by its captivating nature, including magnificent mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, carnivals, and festivals. It is an ideal destination for extended tours, hiking, and other active vacations. Travelers should be aware in advance of the potential natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. While natural disasters can be unexpected, knowing about their potential allows for better preparation.
Climatic Features of Argentina
Argentina, a vast country occupying almost the entire south of South America, stretches from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tierra del Fuego Islands, encompassing several climatic belts and a variety of landforms.
In the west of the country are the highest peaks of the Andes, the world’s longest mountain range. Among them stands out the eternally snow-capped Mount Aconcagua, the country’s highest point, reaching a height of 6960 meters.
The Andes is a young and constantly growing mountain system formed by the collision of continental and oceanic plates during the drift of South America. This ongoing process results in frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The eastern coast of the country is washed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where strong storms occur, although tropical cyclones typically bypass Argentina.
The central and southern part of the country is known as Patagonia, characterized by an arid steppe plain, the pampas, where steppe fires often occur.
Contrastingly, the northern part of Argentina experiences excessive moisture, leading to floods that can be catastrophic. The center of tornado occurrence is also located in this region.
Natural Factors Leading to Natural Disasters in Argentina
1. Seismic Activity: Although seismic activity is sufficiently high due to the collision of continental and oceanic lithospheric plates, it is weaker than in neighboring Chile. The country is at risk of a major earthquake, with dozens of small earthquakes occurring annually.
2. Volcanism: Argentina has quite a few dormant and active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. However, in most cases, the eruptions of local volcanoes are not characterized by high intensity.
3. Mountains: High mountains covered with glaciers pose a constant threat, experiencing rockfalls, landslides, mudslides, and avalanches.
4. Long Coastlines: While posing a potential threat from storms and hurricanes, earthquakes are rare in this part of the Atlantic, minimizing the danger of tsunamis.
5. High Rainfall: Excessive rainfall can cause severe flooding, especially in mountainous areas, in the form of mudflows—streams of mud and water sweeping away everything in their path. The northern parts of the country are most susceptible to this disaster.
6. Low Moisture and Droughts: The combination of these factors often leads to natural fires in the pampas and forests.
7. Collision of Air Masses of Different Temperatures: This leads to the frequent formation of tornadoes that can cause significant damage.
The Importance of Studying the History of Natural Disasters
Understanding the history of natural disasters is crucial information to acquire before traveling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may await you can help you not only select the right location but also choose the optimal time and season of the year when the risk of being in the epicenter of a natural disaster is minimal.
For example, being aware that the north of the country experiences increased precipitation between June and August, often leading to floods and mudslides, allows you to choose a different time to travel to these regions of Argentina.
This article provides a chronological overview of natural disasters that have occurred in the country in the past.
Argentina is entirely located on the South American lithospheric plate, but its western part is covered with active mountains – the Andes. Due to the continent’s drift towards the Pacific Ocean, lithospheric plates collide, leading to frequent earthquakes in this region. Here is a list of the most destructive earthquakes in Argentina’s history:
20 March 1861
An earthquake struck the province of Mendoza, located in the central Andes, with an estimated magnitude of 7. Most houses in the city of Mendoza were destroyed, including the colonial government building. Several severe fires occurred due to broken gas lines, and flooding resulted from the riverbed covered with rock debris. The catastrophe claimed up to 12,000 lives, with many thousands injured.
15 January 1944
This earthquake in the province of San Juan in the central Andes became the most destructive in Argentina’s history, reaching a magnitude of 7.8. Most buildings in the city of San Juan were destroyed. The extensive destruction was attributed not only to the strength of the tremors but also to the structural features of the buildings. Many were constructed with adobe, a material lacking high strength, resulting in over 10 thousand casualties buried under rubble.
26 January 1985
Once again, the earthquake’s epicenter was in the province of Mendoza. The shocks reached a magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale. Approximately 23 thousand houses, mostly constructed of adobe, were destroyed, leaving nearly 100,000 people homeless. Fortunately, the number of casualties was relatively low, with only 6 reported deaths.
27 February 2010
The epicenter of this earthquake was near the city of Salta in the northwest of the country, with a magnitude reaching 6.3. While the damage was not extensive, mainly affecting slums, two people lost their lives, including an 8-year-old boy.
Volcanic activity in the Andes is caused by the collision of lithospheric plates. There are more than 80 active, dormant, and extinct volcanoes, with less than ten currently active. Here are the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the country:
Kopaue: This volcano is located in the central Andes near the border with Chile, reaching a height of 2,997 meters. The penultimate eruption occurred in 2012 when a cloud of dust and gases was thrown to a height of 1.5 kilometers. The situation repeated in 2016.
Maipo: An active volcano in the province of Mendoza with a height of 5,264 meters. The last eruption occurred in 1912 and was accompanied by significant lava flows. Earlier lava flows had blocked the caldera, forming a lake.
Viedma: An active volcano in the Southern Andes with a height of 1,500 meters. The last eruption occurred in 1988 and was accompanied by pumice emissions and debris flows.
Floods in Argentina often impact the central provinces of the country. In these regions, heavy but short-term precipitation is not uncommon, leading to the overflow of numerous rivers. This catastrophic phenomenon is vividly described by the writer Jules Verne in his novel «Captain Grant’s Children.» Here are some notable cases from recent years:
Severe flooding struck the city of Santa Fe after prolonged rains. The water level in the Salado River rose more than 2 meters, flooding 28 thousand houses. Authorities urgently evacuated more than 100 thousand people. Unfortunately, casualties could not be avoided, with 154 people losing their lives in the water disaster.
Sudden floods covered the province of Buenos Aires after a heavy downpour. In just 2 hours, 190 millimeters of rain fell, causing flooding in the city of La Plata. Three thousand people were evacuated, with many seeking refuge on rooftops. A short circuit in an oil refinery resulted in a fire. The flood claimed the lives of 101 people.
Flash floods impacted several communities in Buenos Aires province. The Luhan, Areco, and Arricifes rivers overflowed their banks, affecting 800 thousand hectares of flooded areas. Urgent evacuations were required for more than 4 thousand people, and tragically, two lives were lost.
The central regions of the country, including Cordoba, Santa Fe, La Pampa, and Buenos Aires, collectively form the so-called Tornado Alley. Up to a hundred tornadoes occur here every year due to the collision of air masses from Patagonia, Brazil, and the slopes of the Andes.
10 January 1973
The most powerful tornado in Argentine history struck the town of San Justo in the province of Santa Fe. It was classified as a Category 5, the highest category. The tornado swept through the city in a 300-meter swath, destroying over 500 homes. Many buildings were leveled to the ground. The cataclysm claimed 63 lives, and the economic damage exceeded $60,000.
9 January 2017
A typical Argentine tornado passed through the province of St. Louis between the towns of Renca and Tilisarao. Lasting about 20 minutes, it caused some panic among locals. Fortunately, there were no casualties or damages as the tornado bypassed residential buildings and farms.
In winter, the northeastern parts of the country receive very little precipitation. This causes grass and forests to dry out. Any careless handling of fire leads to fires that instantly cover large areas. Most of Argentina’s fires are caused by human error.
Unprecedented fires occurred in the Paraná Delta, caused by the deliberate burning of dry grass. However, the fire soon got out of control, covering more than 70 thousand hectares. Smoke from the fire covered the sky over Buenos Aires and several other cities, causing several car accidents in which nine people died. About 300 were hospitalized due to respiratory problems.
Numerous fires engulfed the province of Cordoba, consuming 60,000 hectares of forest. Significant forces were brought in to extinguish the fire, including seven airplanes. However, two people died in the raging fire.
This time, the epicenter of the fires was the province of Corrientes in the northeast of the country. More than 800 thousand hectares of forest were covered by fire. For extinguishing, 2600 firefighters were involved, and thanks to their dedication, the element was curbed. However, the authorities estimated the total damage at 40 million pesos.
While earthquakes and floods pose the greatest threat to tourists in Argentina, it’s impossible to predict when the next strong earthquake will occur. Therefore, when traveling to Argentina, be prepared for such events and know the proper actions in case of an emergency. Floods in the country can be prolonged, but sometimes they occur suddenly and end within a couple of days. Tornadoes are a threat but rarely cause significant damage. The danger of eruptions in the country is insignificant despite the large number of active volcanoes. Forest and steppe fires do occur, but their danger to tourists is minimal.
The best time to travel to Argentina is from December to February, the local summer when air and water temperatures are at their highest, offering more options for recreation. However, the period from June to August is more suitable for ski tourism.