Natural Disasters in Armenia: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future

Armenia, often considered mysterious and intriguing by many Europeans, has become an increasingly appealing destination for tourists worldwide. As the number of visitors grows annually, not only from Europe but also from neighboring countries, America, and Australia, it becomes crucial for tourists to be aware of potential natural disasters or catastrophes they might encounter. While natural disasters can be unexpected, knowledge about their potential occurrence enables better preparation.

Climatic Peculiarities of Armenia

Nestled in West Asia, within the Transcaucasus region, Armenia stands as the sole landlocked country in its surroundings, covering an area of just 29 thousand square kilometers. Despite its relatively small size compared to neighboring countries, the climate across the republic varies due to its mountainous terrain.

Armenia, characterized by mountainous landscapes, with over half of its territory situated at altitudes exceeding 2000 meters above sea level, hosts the spurs of the Caucasus Mountains in the north and the Armenian Highlands in the south.

The altitudinal belt, a characteristic feature of mountainous countries, manifests diverse climates within Armenia. The southeast valleys experience a desert tropical and subtropical climate, the central part features a moderately continental climate, and the highlands boast an alpine climate.

The country maintains a moderate level of humidification, with annual rainfall not surpassing 700–800 millimeters. Despite its similar latitudinal location, the air temperature in Armenia tends to be lower compared to flatland countries.

Given the youthful nature of the Caucasus mountain system, which belongs to the Alpine folding, ongoing mountain-forming processes may lead to crustal movements and earthquakes.

Potentially Dangerous Factors

Several factors pose potential risks for natural disasters in Armenia:

1. Seismic Activity: The country faces moderate seismic activity, with the threat of several destructive earthquakes in a century. This has historically impacted densely populated areas, exemplified by the 1988 earthquake in Gyumri.

2. Highlands: The elevated terrain increases the likelihood of landslides, debris flows, and rockfalls, posing threats to transportation links and settlements. These events often follow earthquakes or heavy rainfall.

3. Mountain Reservoirs: Susceptible to destruction by earthquakes or other causes, these reservoirs pose a constant hazard to downstream villages.

4. Wooded Areas: Armenia witnesses several dozen forest fires annually, potentially endangering small villages and groups of tourists.

5. Deforestation: Disturbing the water balance in the soil, deforestation frequently becomes a primary cause of landslides.

6. Heavy Precipitation: Intense rainfall triggers short-term floods, mudflows, and mudslides, particularly in spring and late summer.

The Significance of Studying the History of Natural Disasters

Understanding the historical occurrences of natural disasters is vital information to consider before embarking on travel to a particular country. This knowledge not only aids in selecting the right destination but also assists in choosing the optimal time and season, minimizing the risk of being in the epicenter of a natural disaster.

For instance, awareness that Armenia experiences temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius in winter, rendering mountain walks and historical monument visits uncomfortable, can prompt travelers to choose an alternative time for their journey. Simultaneously, winter becomes an ideal period for enthusiasts of skiing.

In this article, we will delve into the chronological account of natural disasters that have transpired in Armenia throughout history, focusing primarily on earthquakes.

Earthquakes

Землетрясение в Спитаке 1988

Armenia’s seismic activity can be attributed to four deep crustal faults and the presence of multiple intersecting zones of these faults. The Armenian highlands and the youthful Caucasus Mountains constitute active seismic zones where earthquakes are prevalent. Over the last century, the country has witnessed six significant earthquakes, each leaving a lasting impact.

30 September 1139

Among the most destructive earthquakes in the region, this event occurred nearly 900 years ago, with its epicenter situated on the border of modern Armenia and Azerbaijan, near Ganja. With a magnitude of 7.7, numerous cities and temples were destroyed, resulting in a death toll exceeding 230 thousand people. Despite historical debates on figures, the aftermath was catastrophic, giving rise to mudflows, landslides, and the formation of seven new lakes.

27 April 1931

A robust earthquake with a magnitude of 6.5 struck the southeast of Armenia in the Syunik region. Forty-seven villages were demolished in Armenia, and 54 were affected in Azerbaijan. The historical Tatev Monastery suffered significant damage, and the death toll, ranging from 400 to 3000, has not been definitively established.

7 December 1988

A devastating earthquake near the city of Spitak in northwestern Armenia, measuring 6.8 in magnitude, resulted in the almost complete destruction of Spitak and severe damage to Gyumri and Vanadzor. Soviet-constructed brick buildings, ill-prepared for such powerful tremors, collapsed, leading to extensive casualties, destruction of factories, and hospitals. The estimated death toll ranges from 25,000 to 50,000 people.

13 February 2022

The most recent significant earthquake occurred in early 2022 near the border with Georgia. With its epicenter 40 kilometers north of Gyumri and a magnitude of 5.3, tremors were felt even in Tbilisi. While causing panic and evacuation, only two people sustained injuries, and fortunately, there were no fatalities.

Landslides

Армения оползень

Landslides and rockfalls, often intertwined with seismic events, have left an indelible mark on Armenia’s landscape. While the catastrophic changes witnessed during the 1139 disaster are not prevalent today, landslides remain a substantial threat. Uncontrolled deforestation, exacerbating the risk by contributing to groundwater accumulation and rock sliding, has intensified the peril.

The northern regions of the republic, particularly in Gyumri, Dilijan, and Vanadzor, experience the highest frequency of landslides. These geological events pose a menace to critical infrastructure such as motorways and energy highways, as well as small settlements and pastoral lands. A poignant example occurred in 1977 when a formidable landslide nearly obliterated a neighborhood named Rotonda in the quaint town of Dilijan. To this day, many houses in the city continue to succumb to the ongoing threat.

Scientists have meticulously identified over 3000 precarious, landslide zones across the republic, with 120 zones directly menacing residential settlements. The consequences of these events extend beyond immediate destruction, impacting the long-term stability of communities and necessitating ongoing vigilance and proactive measures to mitigate the risks posed by these geological hazards.

Debris Flows

Армения селевой поток

Debris flows, akin to landslides, are primarily triggered by elevated water levels in rivers and soil. Unlike landslides, however, mudflows are episodic rather than persistent, and their occurrence is closely tied to heavy rainfall. A mere one-hour downpour can catalyze the formation of a mudflow, with the rapid descent of water and rock masses lasting only a few minutes. Subsequently, the gradual dissipation of the mudflow can extend for up to six hours.

Armenia experiences an average of up to 10 mudflows annually, with the majority occurring during the summer months, constituting up to 70% of the total mudflow activity. The climatic outlook, influenced by global climate change, suggests a potential increase in the frequency and intensity of powerful mudflows. As a result, understanding and monitoring these weather-driven phenomena become increasingly crucial for the safety and preparedness of communities in Armenia.

Rockfalls

A recurring challenge in any mountainous region is the occurrence of rockfalls. These events can be triggered by even the slightest ground disturbance, unsettling the delicate equilibrium of rocks on steep slopes. While rockfalls seldom result in human casualties, they pose a significant threat to transportation infrastructure.

An illustrative incident took place in early August 2018 when a robust rockfall obstructed the road leading to the Geghard temple, a prominent tourist destination in Armenia. Road maintenance services dedicated five days to clearing the motorway, including deliberately destabilizing an overhanging rock section to mitigate the risk of a recurring rockfall.

Even sizable cities are not immune to rockfalls. In November 2022, a rockfall blocked a road in Jrashen, a suburb of Yerevan. Fortunately, traffic was restored after a few hours, underscoring the ongoing need for vigilance and prompt response measures in mitigating the impact of rockfalls on both rural and urban areas.

Floods

Наводнение на горной реке

Floods are not a typical disaster in Armenia, given the absence of low-lying areas that often suffer from waterlogging in other countries. Instead, the country experiences short-term flooding of small areas, primarily caused by heavy rains and the rise of water in mountain rivers.

An illustrative incident occurred on June 12, 2017, when Yerevan encountered a severe downpour accompanied by hail. This event led to the brief flooding of several underground passages, causing disruption and blocking several cars. While floods are not a prevalent occurrence in Armenia, their impact, when they do happen, underscores the need for preparedness and adaptive measures to mitigate the effects of such natural events.

Forest Fires

Армения, пожар в парке Сюник

Armenia boasts a substantial forest cover, reaching 70%, despite persistent deforestation. The country’s hot and relatively dry summers contribute to occasional isolated fires, though these generally pose minimal threats to settlements and tourist ventures.

An illustrative incident occurred in August 2017 when a forest fire swept through the Khosrov reserve, engulfing approximately 250 hectares of forested area. The response to this event involved the deployment of two helicopters and over 200 personnel from specialized services to extinguish the fire.

In 2019, Armenia faced a significant challenge, with 4,300 recorded cases of forest and dry grass fires. This highlights the importance of ongoing efforts to manage and prevent forest fires, ensuring the preservation of the country’s rich natural landscapes and minimizing the potential impact on communities and ecosystems.

Conclusion

For tourists exploring Armenia, the primary concern revolves around the potential threat of earthquakes. The unpredictable nature of seismic events makes it challenging to foresee their occurrence, heightening the risk of finding oneself in the epicenter. While the region has not experienced strong earthquakes in recent decades, this only serves to increase the probability of future seismic activity.

Landslides and rockfalls pose a tangible risk, particularly for those traveling by motor transport, bicycles, or on foot. However, the likelihood of encountering such incidents is lower than the threat posed by earthquakes.

Mudslides and floods, along with forest fires, present minimal risks to tourism in Armenia. These natural disasters are infrequent and generally do not pose significant dangers to visitors.

Optimal travel times are from May to September for historical site visits and mountain exploration, and from December to February for skiing enthusiasts. Understanding the nuances of Armenia’s natural hazards allows for informed decision-making, enhancing the overall safety and enjoyment of the tourist experience in this diverse and historically rich country.

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