Natural Disasters in France: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future
France is one of the most popular tourist destinations. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax and learn about the country’s culture and history. And of course, they should know in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. Natural disasters always come unexpectedly, but with knowledge of their potential, you can prepare for them.
Climate characteristics of France
France lies in a temperate maritime and continental climate zone, with mild winters and very hot summers. The high mountains of the Alps in the east and the Pyrenees in the south of the country. Potential hazards that could cause a natural disaster include:
- A long coastline where severe storms, hurricanes, floods and tsunamis are possible.
- Mountainous terrain, where avalanches, landslides and rock falls are always possible.
- A hot climate, which can cause drought and forest fires.
- High rainfall, which can cause severe flooding in the central regions of the country.
The importance of studying the history of disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers you may face will not only help you choose the right location, but also the time of year when the risk of being in the midst of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, you can avoid travelling to France when July and August are the hottest months of the year, especially in the arid centre of the country.
This article gives you a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in France in the past.
France lies almost entirely on an ancient tectonic platform, which makes earthquakes rare here. Most of them occur in the south of the country, where there are relatively young and mobile mountains. History has recorded a number of fairly strong earthquakes.
February 1227, Provence
A strong earthquake of uncertain magnitude is reported in the annals. Several towns and villages were destroyed. Around 5,000 people died.
February 1428, Catalonia
A strong earthquake of magnitude 6.7 shook the Spanish province of Catalonia. Its aftershocks were felt across the Pyrenees, causing landslides, rockslides and rock falls. Several villages were destroyed and hundreds of people lost their lives.
April 1580, Straits of Dover
A magnitude 6 earthquake struck at 6pm in the strait between France and Great Britain. Several buildings in the town of Lille were destroyed, Rouen, Arras and Bethune were also affected. Hundreds of casualties were reported.
January 1799, Vendée
An earthquake of magnitude 6.4 occurred at sea, off the coast of France. The tremors were felt all along the coast, even in La Rochelle, which lies far to the south. Dozens of houses were destroyed, the death toll was not reported.
February 1887, Liguria
The epicentre of the earthquake was near the south-eastern coast of France in the Mediterranean Sea. The magnitude of the tremor was 6.8. A number of towns on the French Riviera and northern Italy were affected. The total death toll is estimated at 3,000.
June 1909, Provence
The earthquake occurred at 9 pm on June 11. Its magnitude was 6.2. As a result, more than 2 thousand houses and the ancient castle of Vernet were destroyed. Forty-six people died and more than 200 were injured.
January 1946, Valais
The strong earthquake in the Swiss canton of Valais was felt on this side of the Alps. A tremor of magnitude 6.2 caused numerous landslides in the Rhone valley and damaged more than 3,000 buildings. One person was killed in France and three more in Switzerland.
Tsunamis are a rare natural phenomenon in France, but they do occur after earthquakes whose epicentre was underwater.
A small tsunami was generated following the earthquake of 1799, and after the tremors of 1887 the waves were up to 2 metres high.
Tsunamis can also be triggered by landslides, as happened in 1979 in Nice. Then, after an underwater landslide, waves up to 3.5 metres high hit the city.
Tsunamis were not very destructive, but the possibility of a tsunami must be borne in mind.
Severe flooding occasionally affects both coastal and inland areas of France. While the sea coastal flooding is caused by violent storms and, less frequently, by tsunamis, the central part of the country is affected by heavy rainfall.
In the winter of 1910, for example, torrential rainfall turned the normally calm Seine into a violent river. The water level rose 8.62 meters above normal, flooding the underground, sewers, streets and Orsay station. The damage amounted to more than 400 million francs.
Similarly, Grenoble was flooded in October 1859. After five days of rain, the waters of the River Isère gushed onto the streets and forced people to travel on rafts. Six people died then.
In December 1981 a violent storm in the Atlantic Ocean caused flooding in the city of Bordeaux. Thanks to the timely action of the emergency services, no casualties were caused.
Landslides are a very frequent phenomenon in the French mountains. They can be triggered by heavy rainfall, by movements of the earth’s crust and by earthquakes, even the smallest ones. But apart from the mountain landslides, the collapses having man-made nature were fixed in France.
In 1884, for example, a large landslide occurred in a former quarry in the town of Boël. After heavy rain, the quarry walls floated and buried 8 people, including 2 children.
Avalanches often happen during the winter and spring months on the slopes of the Alps. These are high mountains whose peaks are covered by a thick layer of snow and glaciers. The Alps are a popular skiing destination, and this is what makes avalanches deadly.
One of the worst avalanches happened in February 1970 in the resort town of Val d’Isère. An enormous avalanche hit a chalet with around 200 people in it. Thirty-nine skiers lost their lives and 37 were seriously injured.
Another disaster occurred more recently, in January 2016, in the Sears alpine massif. The foreign legion was conducting skiing exercises there. Heavy snowfall the previous day had led to a high avalanche risk, but the weather service data had not been taken into account by the command. An avalanche resulted in 6 deaths.
In recent years, forest fires have become a real disaster in France. The reason for this is climate change, which is making the country’s summers hotter every year. Towards the end of the summer, grass and trees dry out to the point where they burst into flames in the sun. Traditionally, the southern regions of France, the Alps and Pyrenees, have been the most dangerous in terms of fires.
One of the most devastating was the fire of 2021. It broke out on 17 August and swept across Provence, the Côte d’Azur and the slopes of the Alps in a short period of time. The flames were more than 20 metres high in many places. Thousands of people were urgently evacuated. Hundreds of firefighters were deployed to fight the blaze. Despite all efforts, casualties could not be avoided. Two people died in the fire.
France, because of its geographical location, does not suffer as many devastating storms as the British Isles or Denmark, but it does have its share of terrible storms.
In March 1876, for example, the north of France was hit by a storm called «Big Brother Lothar». Contemporaries called it the worst event of the 19th century.
In December 1999, Cyclone Lothar struck the coast of France with hurricane force winds and heavy rainfall. Hundreds of buildings were damaged, trees were uprooted and the Blayais nuclear power station was flooded. More than 100 people were killed in the monstrous cataclysm.
The biggest threat to tourists in France is the weather. Floods, storms and forest fires are not uncommon here. On the mountainous areas, one should be wary of avalanches and landslides. Earthquakes are unusual for France, although there is a possibility of some.
Summer is the safest time of year to visit France, although the sweltering heat can make a visit uncomfortable. In winter, floods, avalanches and, oddly enough, earthquakes are more common. The threat of tsunamis is low, and volcanic eruptions are unheard of.