Natural disasters in Fiji: past and future risks
Fiji is an increasingly popular tourist destination. Every year, more and more people come to the islands to relax on the wonderful beaches and admire the beautiful nature. They should find out in advance what kind of natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing about its potentiality is a good way to prepare for it.
Climate Features of Fiji
The archipelago of Fiji is located in the western Pacific Ocean in the tropical zone. It consists of more than 300 islands of both volcanic and coral origin.
The topography of all the major islands is mountainous, with many peaks rising over 1000 metres above sea level. Many of them are formerly active volcanoes. However, volcanic activity in Fiji stopped not so long ago. Even in the middle of the last millennium, small eruptions were recorded here.
The Fiji Islands are located at the junction of the Indo-Australian and Pacific lithospheric plates, the mutual movement of which leads to quite large earthquakes.
The climate of the islands is maritime tropical, with high rainfall and a small difference in average monthly temperatures. The eastern coast of the islands is more moisturised than the western coast. This is where tropical cyclones bring heavy rainfall. The western coasts are influenced by the El Niño current, which brings hot and dry air.
The coastline of the archipelagos is long, protected in many places by a wall of coral reef. The archipelago’s barrier reef is considered one of the longest in the world.
Most of the islands are covered with dense mangrove and humid tropical forests. Animal life is poor, but insects and birds are plentiful.
Potential hazards that could cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. The collision of two lithospheric plates threatens with strong earthquakes and tsunamis arising after them.
- Long coastline length. Despite the protection of coral reefs, the archipelago can be exposed to strong storms, hurricanes and tsunamis.
- Volcanism. The islands are volcanic in nature, and although none of the islands’ volcanoes are currently erupting, the risk of such an event exists.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. The archipelago is located in the tropical cyclone zone, there is a risk of severe storms and hurricanes.
- Heavy rains. May cause short-term floods and overflows of mountain rivers.
The importance of studying the history of natural disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may be awaiting you will not only help you choose the right place, but also the time and season of the year when the threat of being at the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that the tropical cyclone season, when strong storms are most common, starts in November and lasts until April, you can choose a different time to travel to Fiji.
From this article, you will learn a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Fiji in the past.
Earthquakes and tsunamis
Over the past 100 years, 8 major earthquakes have been recorded in the islands. The first of these occurred in 1884 on Vanua Levu Island and had a magnitude of over 6.8. The event caused minor damage and triggered a tsunami.
In the first half of the 20th century, the islands were shaken twice more. Both times the intensity of the shocks did not reach 7 points, and there was almost no damage.
14 September 1953, Suva
The epicentre of tremors was located near the south-eastern coast of Viti Levu. The magnitude reached 6.8 points. As a result, dozens of houses in the capital were destroyed, 3 people died under the rubble. But the elements did not stop there. The earthquake caused a tsunami wave, which also reached Suva. Under the waves that swept the streets of the city, 5 more people died. The tsunami itself caused a landslide that damaged submarine cables. Damage from the earthquake exceeded $500,000.
19 August 2018, Lakeba
The epicentre of this earthquake was located near a small island in the south of the archipelago. The strength of the tremors exceeded 8.2 points. The depth of the origin of the earthquake was about 600 kilometres, and therefore it did not cause destruction and a tsunami strike, despite the high power.
6 September 2018, Lakeba
This second earthquake had a slightly lower magnitude of 7.9 and also occurred at a significant depth of about 600 kilometres. There was no destruction and no tsunami was generated.
Fiji is an island of volcanic origin. There are currently no active volcanoes, but that could change in the blink of an eye. Volcanologists believe that the real danger is posed by four volcanoes in the archipelago.
Koro volcano is located on the island of the same name and has a height of 522 metres. It last erupted several thousand years ago.
Nabukelevu volcano erupted in 1660. Its height is 805 metres.
Rotuma volcano is the smallest of the dormant volcanoes. It’s only 255 metres high. It erupted shortly before our era.
Taveuni volcano is the largest, at 1,241 metres. The last eruption dates back to 1550.
Storms and hurricanes
The tropical cyclone season begins in November and lasts until April. During this time, Fiji is regularly hit by severe storms with torrential rainfall and high winds. They not only cause flooding and landslides, but often cause serious destruction along the coast.
Cyclone Zoe, 26-30 December 2002
The second most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere did not pass the archipelago of Fiji. It passed 300 kilometres west of the town of Nandi on the island of Viti Levu, causing heavy rainfall over the entire archipelago. The wind speed was about 80 kilometres per hour. However, the cyclone did not cause serious damage.
Cyclone Evan, 15-18 December 2012
People prepared for the impact of the disaster in advance. Many residents of coastal areas were evacuated, international airports were closed. Hurricane winds easily tore up trees, tore down power lines and destroyed buildings. About 8,000 people lost their homes and were forced to live in temporary shelters. Damage from the cyclone exceeded $40 million.
Cyclone Winston, 19-21 February 2016
This cyclone was the strongest cyclone to rage in the Southern Hemisphere in the history of meteorological observations. As it passed Viti Levu, it reached its maximum intensity, with wind speeds exceeding 280 kilometres per hour. Its effects were devastating. Whole islands were left without electricity, many settlements lost contact with each other, and a number of village communities were completely destroyed. As a result, 44 people died, thousands of houses were destroyed, storm waves penetrated deep into the territory of the islands, causing severe flooding. Total damage totalled $1.4 billion.
Cyclone Yasa, 17-21 December 2020
A powerful tropical cyclone hit the island of Vanua Levu. Hurricane-force winds and torrential rainfall destroyed homes, severed wires, and destroyed roads. More than 23,000 people were forced to seek refuge in evacuation centres. Colossal damage was caused to the country’s agriculture. Unfortunately, casualties could not be avoided. An elderly man and a small child died under the rubble in their own house. The total damage exceeded $246 million.
Floods and forest fires
Forest fires are not typical for the archipelago. The humid climate prevents their occurrence and spread. But floods on the islands regularly occur in the summer period, that is, in November-April, because this is the Southern Hemisphere. At this time, the region suffers from monsoons, cyclones and tropical depressions carrying large amounts of water. Minor floods occur regularly from year to year and usually do not lead to catastrophic consequences. But sometimes floods become a real disaster on a national scale.
A typical example of local flooding, was the events of early January 2022. Then Cyclone Cody caused significant flooding. Seven major rivers on the island of Viti Levu overflowed their banks, destroying motorways and demolishing houses. Authorities evacuated 1,800 people in advance and casualties were avoided. But this was not always the case.
That year, several unfavourable factors coincided, combining strong monsoons, Cyclone Hattie and two tropical depressions. As a result, tonnes of water poured over the islands, causing the worst flooding in Fiji’s history. Unexpectedly for the authorities, the flooding peaked in the western, the driest part of the island of Viti Levu. As a result of flooding many roads became impassable, sugar cane plantations died, about 6 thousand people were urgently evacuated. But casualties could not be avoided, and 11 people died. Damage from the floods totalled $64 million.
The biggest threat to tourists holidaying in Fiji is the seasonal tropical cyclones that bring strong, gusty winds and rain to the archipelago. Almost every year there are powerful cyclones, which turn into a real disaster for Fiji.
The second most frequent cataclysm is flooding, both associated with passing cyclones and occurring without their participation. Floods do not usually result in loss of life, but caution should still be exercised.
Earthquakes, which can be very strong and devastating, pose a significant threat. Such earthquakes occur at intervals of about 30 years. Even if a powerful earthquake occurs far from the archipelago, its consequences in the form of tsunamis can reach the islands.
Volcanic eruptions are currently unlikely and pose no danger to holidaymakers.
The islands are also prone to landslides in mountainous areas of the country. Such cataclysms occur in the rainy season and carry a certain danger. But forest fires do not bother Fiji residents and tourists.
The best time to travel to Fiji is from May to September. This is the time of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when the season of tropical cyclones ends and the amount of rainfall is significantly reduced. At the same time, the south-eastern trade winds slightly reduce the air temperature, making it more comfortable.