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

Georgia holds a mystique for many Europeans, often perceived as a mysterious and somewhat fairy-tale country shrouded in myths. As knowledge about it is limited in reality, curiosity about the republic is on the rise, attracting an increasing number of tourists each year. Visitors come not only from Europe and neighboring regions but also from distant places like America and Australia. To ensure a safe journey, tourists should be aware of potential natural disasters or catastrophes that may be encountered. While natural disasters can be unexpected, prior knowledge enables better preparation.

Climatic Characteristics of Georgia

Situated as the westernmost state in the Transcaucasia, Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea. Despite a relatively short maritime border of just over 300 kilometers, the influence of this expansive water basin significantly impacts the country. The Black Sea experiences strong storms and hurricanes, particularly in autumn and winter, though this is a period with fewer tourists.

Georgia boasts a diverse topography, featuring the towering mountains of the Greater Caucasus in the north, with its highest peak, Mount Shkhara, reaching 5068 meters and over 600 glaciers. To the south, the Lesser Caucasus with peaks up to 2800 meters and the Colchis lowland, gradually sinking towards the Black Sea, form the landscape. The mountainous terrain poses risks of landslides, mudslides, rockfalls, and winter avalanches. While the Caucasus is devoid of active volcanoes, being a relatively young mountain system, some peaks are extinct volcanoes.

Rivers originating from the Caucasus peaks, such as the Rioni with a length of 327 kilometers, traverse the country. Georgia experiences a predominantly subtropical climate, transitioning to temperate towards the east, characterized by hot summers and cool winters, averaging around +25 degrees Celsius. Precipitation is distributed unevenly, with the Black Sea coast receiving the highest amount, up to 2,800 millimeters annually.

Potential Hazards in Georgia:

1. Seismic Activity: Of medium intensity, concentrated in mountainous regions due to the collision of the Arabian and Eurasian lithospheric plates.

2. Highlands: Risks include mudflows, landslides, rockfalls, and avalanches, localized but potentially threatening lives.

3. Mountain Reservoirs: The possibility of dam and dyke breaches on mountain rivers, noted to be occurring more frequently in recent years.

4. Forest Cover: With over 35% forest coverage, Georgia faces several natural fire cases annually, posing threats to villages and tourist groups.

5. Sea Coast: Annual hurricanes and storms, peaking in winter, with increasing strength attributed to climate warming.

6. Heavy Precipitation: Leading to short-term floods, mudslides, and mudflows, particularly frequent in spring and late summer.

The Significance of Understanding the History of Natural Disasters

Understanding the history of natural disasters is crucial information to grasp before embarking on a journey to a chosen country. Familiarizing yourself with potential dangers not only aids in selecting the right destination but also allows for planning travel during times and seasons with minimal threats of being in the epicenter of a natural disaster.

For instance, being aware that Georgia experiences uncomfortable winter temperatures, dropping below 0 degrees, helps travelers reconsider visiting during this season. Conversely, for skiing enthusiasts, winter becomes an ideal time to explore the country.

This article delves into the chronology of past natural disasters in Georgia, providing valuable insights for informed and prepared travel.

Earthquakes

Землетрясение в Тбилиси

Earthquakes in Georgia have generally been of moderate magnitude, and the tectonic situation is relatively calm compared to neighboring regions like Turkey or Armenia. The country has not experienced devastating earthquakes similar to those in other parts of the region. The highest recorded magnitude is only 7 points. Below is a list of notable earthquakes in Georgia:

16 April 1088

The oldest known earthquake occurred in southern Georgia near the now-destroyed fortress of Tmogvi, with a magnitude of 6.5. Chroniclers reported extensive destruction and casualties, including the severe damage to Tmogvi castle and the tragic loss of the prince and his wife.

20th February 1920

A significant earthquake struck the area near the city of Gori in the central part of the republic, estimated at a magnitude of 6.2. The city of Gori and its adjacent medieval fortress were severely affected, resulting in around 130 reported fatalities.

29 April 1991

The most powerful earthquake in Georgia occurred near the town of Racha in the northern part of the country, registering a magnitude of 7. The earthquake impacted 700 settlements and villages, destroying 40 thousand houses and leaving over 100 thousand people homeless. Despite the extensive destruction, the number of victims was relatively low at 270 people due to the earthquake happening during the daytime when many residents were working in the fields.

25 April 2002

The epicenter of this earthquake was the capital, Tbilisi, with a magnitude of 4.8. While not extremely strong, it caused significant damage amounting to 160 million dollars. The historic part of the city, characterized by low-rise brick buildings, suffered particularly. Approximately 18 thousand buildings were partially or completely destroyed, and seven people lost their lives.

Landslides

Оползень и сель в Шови

Landslides are an unfortunate reality for many mountainous countries, and Georgia is no exception. The primary cause of landslides is soil instability, influenced by factors such as precipitation and earthquakes. These events pose a serious threat to mountain villages and roadways, often resulting in significant damage and casualties.

29 April 1991

Following the earthquake in Racha, numerous landslides occurred. The most devastating of them targeted the village of Khokheti, which was essentially obliterated by an avalanche of rocks and debris. Tragically, fifty people lost their lives under the rubble.

3 August 2023

One of the most destructive landslides in the country’s history unfolded in the north, near the mountain resort of Shovi. The landslide affected the bed of the mountainous Bubistskali River, triggering the formation of a mudflow. This mudflow engulfed tourist cottages and local residents’ homes, resulting in the loss of thirty-two lives.

Mudflows

Mudslides in mountainous areas are typically triggered by either heavy rainfall or landslides that lead to the overflow of mountain rivers. As mentioned earlier, we discussed how a landslide in Shovi resulted in a mudslide, causing numerous casualties. However, in the early days of February 12, 2024, prolonged rains in West Georgia caused numerous mudflows. This led to the flooding of many houses, isolation of several settlements, and unfortunately, the loss of two lives.

Rockfalls

Rockfalls, while not as devastating as mudslides or landslides, still present a significant threat to the local population and tourists, particularly impacting mountainous roadways. The unpredictability of when large boulders might dislodge from cliffs makes it challenging to foresee these events. A minor disturbance can be the trigger for a rockfall. For instance, on August 14, 2023, a rockfall caused a major disruption in traffic on the Chabua Amirejibe highway in Tbilisi, blocking this crucial transportation route for nearly a month.

Avalanches

Лавина на перевале

Avalanches represent another hazard for mountainous regions. This perilous natural occurrence typically happens towards the end of winter, when the mountainous snow cover reaches its maximum thickness. For instance, on February 5, 2020, an avalanche struck the Krestovy Pass road, carrying away a vehicle with people into the gorge, resulting in one fatality. A similar incident transpired on February 21, 2023, when an avalanche blocked the Jvari-Khaishi road, leaving several villages in complete isolation without power for several days. Fortunately, there were no casualties in that instance.

Floods

Floods are a recurring natural disaster in the republic, often induced by heavy rainfall and swollen rivers. In mountainous regions, floods may coincide with mudslides, while in lowland areas, they result in extensive inundation.

During the night of June 13-14, 2015, severe flooding paralyzed life in Tbilisi. Intense rains caused the Vere River to overflow, leading to the flooding of residential and administrative buildings, as well as road erosion. The disaster was particularly severe in the zoo area. Numerous predatory animals, including lions, tigers, bears, and wolves, broke free, necessitating the use of army special forces to apprehend them. Tragically, nineteen people lost their lives as a result of the havoc.

Storms and Hurricanes

После шторма в Батуми

The hurricane season, if we can refer to it as such in Georgia, typically commences in late autumn and may persist throughout the winter. During this period, strong winds can lead to destruction on land, accompanied by stormy waves at sea.

A notable example of such a storm occurred on January 21, 2023. The powerful winds tore off roofs, toppled hundreds of trees, and snapped wires in three regions of the country. The overall damage was estimated at $300,000, and unfortunately, one individual lost their life when a tree fell on their car.

On November 28, 2023, a storm, unprecedented in over a century, battered the coast of Adjara. With wind speeds reaching 25 meters per second, the waves inflicted damage on coastal infrastructure and flooded nearby streets. The storm’s intensity was measured at 8 points.

Forest Fires

Пожар в Боржомском лесу

Wildfires are not only ignited by hot and dry weather but are often a result of human error. Forest fires occur annually in Georgia, although they are typically of moderate intensity. These fires can happen at any time of the year, with a higher incidence during the summer.

In December 2023, a forest fire persisted for several days in the Telavi region, posing a threat to several villages. Fortunately, the fire was swiftly contained.

Towards the end of August 2022, a fire in the Borjomi forest endured for five days, initiated by an unattended fire. Firefighting helicopters and an airplane were deployed, involving over a thousand servicemen to extinguish the flames. The fire was successfully halted, preventing it from approaching tourist centers.

Conclusion:

The primary threat to tourists visiting Georgia is potential earthquakes. Their occurrence is challenging to predict, leaving a possibility of being in the epicenter. Fortunately, powerful earthquakes are infrequent in this region.

Landslides and rockfalls may pose risks for tourists traveling in Georgia by car, bicycle, or on foot. Nevertheless, the likelihood of being trapped under rubble is lower than the threat of an earthquake.

Mudslides and floods can also be risky for tourists, especially during the summer months, which coincide with the high tourist season. Areas like Adjara are particularly susceptible to waterlogging.

Winter storms may present some danger, but during this period, there are typically no beachgoers.

The risk of forest fires is minimal.

The optimal time for travel to Georgia is from May to October, suitable for beach vacations, exploring historical sites, and mountain excursions. December to March offers ideal conditions for skiing.

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