Natural Disasters in Germany: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future
Germany is a much sought-after tourist destination. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax and admire the beautiful mountains, see the historical monuments and take part in the bustling festivals. And of course they should know in advance what natural hazards or disasters they may encounter. Natural disasters always come unexpectedly, but with the knowledge of their potential, you can prepare for them.
Climate characteristics of Germany
Germany is located in the very centre of Europe. To the north, it borders the Jutland Peninsula, with the North Sea on one side and the Baltic Sea on the other.
The country’s proximity to the sea gives it a mild climate, with no major temperature variations. It is moderately maritime on the coast and moderately continental to the south. The Baltic Sea, and especially the North Sea, often sees violent storms with hurricane-force winds blowing over the coast and even penetrating deep into the country.
Germany lies on an ancient and tranquil Eurasian platform, but to the south are the young mountains, the Alps. Crustal movements and earthquakes are still possible there.
Low precipitation in the summer contributes to forest fires, which are increasingly worrying the German population.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Proximity of the sea. Can cause hurricanes, storms, heavy rainfall causing flooding.
- Alpine folding. It can cause earthquakes, which can be accompanied by landslides and cave-ins.
- Torrential precipitation. It can cause rivers to overflow and flooding.
- Hot, dry weather. It can cause fires and forest fires, and in the mountains can lead to melting glaciers and avalanches.
- Mining and quarrying. Wreaks havoc on the earth’s crust and can trigger small tremors.
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 that may be waiting for you, you can choose not only the right place, but also the time, the season of the year, when the threat of being at the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, if you know that from October to February there are more stormy winds with heavy rainfall in Germany, you might consider visiting the country at a different time of year.
This article provides a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Germany in the past.
Germany is located in an earthquake-prone region, but nevertheless it has and will continue to experience earthquakes caused by movements of the earth’s crust in the Alps. Here are some of the most significant earthquakes that have occurred in the past:
18 October 1356, Basel
A strong earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 6.5 almost destroyed the Swiss city of Basel, located in close proximity to the Alps. More than 300 people were killed in the city itself, and most of its wooden and stone buildings were swept away. The reverberations of this earthquake were felt throughout Germany, but history is silent on the casualties.
18 February 1756, Düren
In the early hours of the morning, the inhabitants of Düren and many other German towns were awakened to the violent tremors. The magnitude of the tremors exceeded 6 on the Richter scale. Many buildings in Düren were destroyed, and houses in Cologne and Magdeburg were damaged. Four deaths are known as a result of the earthquake and many injured. In Aachen, some hot springs dried up.
14 March 1951, Oiskirchen
Quite strong tremors with a magnitude of 5.8 occurred closer to noon. Several buildings in the city were damaged and 11 people suffered minor injuries from bricks and glass falling from a height. In neighbouring Cologne, people panicked and sought refuge in bomb shelters. After this seismic event, earthquake monitoring services began to develop in Germany.
13 April 1992, Roermond
The earthquake took place late at night. Its epicentre was near the Dutch town of Roermond, but the tremors were felt throughout North Rhine-Westphalia. The magnitude was 5.8. In Germany, 30 people were injured and there was significant damage to buildings and transport infrastructure.
24 July 2009, Moers
A small earthquake with a magnitude of 3.3 occurred around 5 am. It was caused by underground work in coal mines. The earthquake did not cause any damage, but we noted it as a characteristic event of a technogenic nature. Earthquakes of magnitude 3 to 4.5 are fairly common in Western Germany.
Storms and Hurricanes
October to February is hurricane season in Germany. This is when devastating storms and cyclones often come in from the Atlantic. They not only bring strong winds but also heavy rainfall.
In January 2007, for example, Cyclone Cyril struck the German coast. The wind speed reached 150 kilometres per hour, century-old trees were torn out with the roots, power transmission poles fell down. Thirteen people were killed in the country and the damage exceeded 4 billion euros. It was one of the strongest hurricanes in a hundred years.
In February 2022, Cyclone Eunice struck Germany. Wind gusts reached 140 kilometres per hour. It also caused considerable damage and three people died.
In recent years, tornadoes, which are not typical of the German climate, have been observed in the country with increasing frequency. One of the strongest tornadoes occurred on June 23, 2004. A tornado swept across Saxony and caused 8 deaths.
Floods are a frequent natural disaster in Germany. They occur for two main reasons: after heavy rainfall, which occurs more often in the summer months, and after storms, which occur in the autumn and winter.
A severe storm in the North Sea produced an abnormally high tide of about 3 metres. Many coastal towns were submerged, but casualties and severe damage were avoided.
Heavy rains caused the Rhine, Danube and Seine rivers to rise and caused severe flooding in Central Europe. Dozens of settlements were flooded and rail and road connections were disrupted. As a result of the flood, 20 people were killed.
The biggest flooding in the last 100 years caused by torrential rains affected many European countries, but Germany was the hardest hit. A number of tributaries of the Rhine River burst its banks, swept away bridges and dykes, leaving more than 150 000 people without electricity. There were 184 deaths and 70 people are still missing. Damage from the rampant disaster amounted to 5.5 billion euros.
Landslides and avalanches
January and February are traditionally characterised by heavy snowfall in the mountains of southern Germany. This is often the cause of avalanches, which can be very dangerous for tourists and locals alike.
In January 2019, for example, heavy snowfalls led to a massive avalanche in the German Alps. As a result, around 30 people died and thousands of tourists were cut off from the rest of the world.
Unlike avalanches, landslides in the mountains occur mostly in spring and summer. They can be triggered by rainfall, earthquakes and crustal movement. For example, in May 2010 a large landslide blocked a popular hiking trail in the Bode Gorge in Lower Harz. It took several months to clear the trail.
The oldest evidence of a landslide occurrence dates back to 1561. It was on 3 April when a major landslide occurred in the Rhön, killing two people.
Forest fires occur regularly in Germany, but do not pose a great danger to humans. The size of fires rarely exceeds 1,000 hectares and fires are extinguished in time.
In July 2022, for example, there was a major fire in a nature park in Eastern Germany that burned 250 hectares. It was extinguished by 270 emergency services and special equipment, and the fire was contained.
One of the worst fires in modern history took place in August 1975 in the Lüneburg Heath, a plain in north-west Germany. At the time the fire covered an area of 74 square kilometres and the flames could not be extinguished for a long time. As a result, five people died.
The biggest threat to tourists in Germany are winter storms and hurricanes. They cause the maximum damage to infrastructure and a lot of inconvenience to holidaymakers. The downpours that accompany hurricanes can cause severe flooding, which also does not contribute to safety.
Earthquakes pose a potential risk to Germany. An earthquake can happen at any time and is very difficult to predict. But fortunately, the strength of earthquakes has been very low in recent years.
Forest fires are not significant and pose little threat to tourists.
The safest time of year to visit Germany is summer and early autumn. The country is not characterised by sweltering heat, with frequent rains that reduce the temperature.