Natural disasters in Italy: past and future risks
Italy is a very popular tourist destination. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on the luxurious beaches of the Mediterranean Sea, to admire the beautiful nature and, of course, to see historical monuments. They should find out in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing about its potential, you can prepare for it.
Climatic characteristics of Italy
Most of Italy is located on the Apennine Peninsula, which stretches deep into the Mediterranean Sea. Italy also includes the southern spurs of the Alps and large islands in the sea.
The Alps are a high and relatively young mountain system, devoid of volcanic cones but lying in a seismically active zone. The highest point is Mount Mont Blanc, at 4,810 metres.
The Apennine Mountains are also not ancient, but are less high than the Alps. Their highest point is Mount Corno Grande, 2,912 metres. The Apennines stretch across the whole of Italy and even enter Sicily. There are active volcanoes in these mountains: Etna and Vesuvius.
North of Sicily in the Lipari Islands, there is another active volcano, Stromboli. It has been erupting continuously for the last 20,000 years.
Most of Italy has a Mediterranean tropical climate. It is characterised by hot summers and heavy precipitation in the off-season. Seasonal winds have a great influence on the weather: mistral, sirocco and föhn.
Potential hazardous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. Can lead to strong earthquakes with destruction and casualties, which has happened many times in the past.
- Volcanism. Volcanic eruptions can be devastating and cause many casualties.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Causes coastal damage, torn roofs and uprooted trees.
- Heavy rainfall. Lead to flooding in mountainous areas, on the coast and in river valleys.
- Hot, dry weather. Causes forest fires.
- High mountains. May cause landslides, avalanches and rockfalls, endangering tourists.
The importance of learning about the history of natural disasters
The history of natural disasters is an important piece of 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 in spring and autumn Italy is at the mercy of rains that cause floods, you can choose a different time of year to visit the country.
From this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Italy in the past.
Italy is located in a region known for high tectonic activity. Earthquakes with a magnitude of 4-5 occur here every year and, as a rule, do not cause serious damage and casualties. But once in a century, really catastrophic earthquakes occur in the country.
5 December 1456, Naples
A strong earthquake with a magnitude of 7.4 occurred in the Kingdom of Naples. The territory around the epicentre of 6 thousand square kilometres was completely destroyed. The city of Isernia was especially affected, where 1500 people out of 2000 living were killed. Other cities of southern Italy were also affected. The total number of victims is estimated at 70 thousand people.
30 July 1627, Gargano
The earthquake struck at midday, affecting the town of Gargano on the Adriatic coast. Its magnitude was 6.6. It caused considerable destruction, killing 5,000 people.
5 February 1783, Calabria.
Five successive earthquakes struck southern Italy between 5 February and 1 March 1783. The most devastating was the earthquake of 5 February, whose magnitude exceeded 7. The city of Messina in Sicily was almost completely destroyed. The number of dead exceeded 50 thousand people.
28 December 1908, the Strait of Messina
The epicentre of the earthquake was in the strait separating Sicily from mainland Italy. The intensity of the tremors exceeded 7.1 points. 90% of buildings in Messina were completely destroyed, and many neighbouring towns were also affected. The tremors occurred at night when most people were asleep. They died under the ruins of their own homes. The total number of victims is estimated at 80 thousand people.
The only active volcanoes in mainland Europe are in Italy. Some of them have been active for a long time. Although there have been no major eruptions in the last few centuries, such events have occurred in relatively recent times.
79 AD, Vesuvius
The most catastrophic eruption of this volcano, located near Naples, occurred during the heyday of the Roman Empire. It caused the destruction of several resort towns, the most famous of which were Pompeii and Herculaneum. A huge cloud of red-hot ash covered the towns and villages and caused the death of 16,000 people.
Vesuvius also erupted in later times, for example, in 472. Then the ash of Vesuvius reached even Constantinople, and again thousands of people died.
The Campanian eruption, the Flegrean Fields
This eruption, which took place 40,000 years ago, is considered one of the strongest in the Mediterranean. According to scientists, it had a huge impact on the climate of Europe and the settlement of ancient man. Currently, the Phlegrean Fields are not erupting, but are essentially a supervolcano similar to Yellowstone and could explode at any moment.
Etna is a constantly active volcano, but most of its eruptions do not pose a serious threat. However, catastrophic eruptions have been recorded many times in the past. One of the strongest happened in 1669. At that time, lava flows rained down on Etna’s neighbouring villages and reached the sea coast. Thanks to the slow, effusive development of the eruption, there were no casualties.
But Etna’s eruptions were not always so harmless. In 122 BC an eruption destroyed the city of Catania, and in 1979 an unexpected explosion killed 10 tourists.
11 September 1930, Stromboli
This volcano is also a constantly active volcano. Every two decades, it spews out long tongues of lava. Usually casualties are avoided, but in 1930 the eruption was unexpectedly violent. The pyroplastic flow reached populated areas and caused the death of 4 people.
In 2019, the eruption of Stromboli also killed a man, a stranded tourist.
Tsunamis in the Mediterranean Sea are formed due to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, underwater landslides. At the same time, the resulting killer waves are not characterised by high destructive power.
For example, in 2002, the eruption of Stromboli and the subsequent landslide led to the formation of a tsunami that hit the coast of southern Italy and Sicily. However, the wave had only enough force to slightly damage coastal buildings.
In 1343, again, the eruption of Stromboli caused a gigantic landslide. The tsunami wave hit the city of Naples and caused numerous destructions and victims described by contemporaries, including Petrarch.
Tsunamis also occurred after strong earthquakes. Thus, in 1627 an earthquake in the Adriatic led to a strong tsunami, which increased the number of victims of the cataclysm. In 1783 a tsunami after an earthquake destroyed the walls of the harbour in Messina and flooded the town of Shilla.
The most destructive tsunami of recent years is considered to be a killer wave in 1908, which appeared after the earthquake in the Strait of Messina. Its height reached 12 metres. This tsunami greatly increased the number of deaths, because people fleeing from the tremors, rushed to the seafront, away from the collapsing buildings. This is where they were caught by three successive tsunami waves.
Storms and hurricanes
The usually calm Mediterranean Sea becomes violent and furious in autumn. Storms and hurricanes often hit the Italian coast at this time. They can last the whole winter, until the onset of spring. And then the entire coast of sunny Italy is threatened. Here are some typical examples from different regions of the country.
In February 2021, a strong hurricane hit Sicily. The wind toppled power poles and ripped the roofs off dozens of houses. The storm surge flooded the streets of Messina and Syracuse.
In early November 2016, a strong storm destroyed the Roman coast. The city of Ladispoli was particularly affected at the time. Hundreds of trees were fallen, cars were damaged and thousands of people were rendered homeless. Four tornado funnels were observed in a week at sea.
An even stronger hurricane happened in November 2018. It affected the entire north-east of the country. Venice went underwater, on the coast the storm surge reached a height of 7 metres.
On 18 August 2022, the hurricane affected Tuscany. The wind not only tore out trees, but also took the lives of seven people. Its speed in gusts exceeded 220 kilometres per hour.
The heavy rainy season in Italy occurs twice a year, in spring and autumn. During this time, numerous rivers overflow their banks and collapse on the towns that stand on them. Here are the most catastrophic floods of recent years.
3-4 November 1966, Florence, Italy
After prolonged rainfall, the Arno River overflowed its banks. The dams could not cope with the water pressure, and it was decided to open the floodgates. As a result, the water flooded the streets of the ancient city, the Bazaar Square and the Cathedral. Electricity and gas were cut off. The high water level did not last long, but as a result 34 people died and 5 thousand families lost their homes.
17-19 November 2013, Sardinia
Mediterranean cyclone Cleopatra caused heavy rains. As a result, water levels in many rivers in Sardinia rose catastrophically. Several towns were flooded, 18 people died and 3,000 were left homeless.
May 2023, Emilia-Romagna
This tourist region received seven months of rainfall in a fortnight in May, causing 23 rivers to overflow and flooding several cities, including Bologna and Rimini. Several dozen landslides occurred, disrupting transport links, and 15,000 people were evacuated. As a result, casualties could not be avoided and 17 people died.
Landslides and Avalanches
Landslides are common in Italy, with dozens of them occurring every year. They are most common in the northern Apennines and the Alps, with the regions of Tuscany and Veneto being particularly affected. Fewer landslides occur during the summer months.
Most landslides have minor consequences, with about 16 per cent causing damage and casualties. The main cause of landslides is heavy rainfall. Although, landslides also occur after earthquakes and eruptions.
Avalanches in Italy are characteristic of the Alpine region, but sometimes even the central parts of the country suffer from them. Thus, in January 2017, an avalanche came down from the Gran Sasso massif in the central Apennines. It was caused by several earthquakes and heavy snowfall. As a result, a hotel was destroyed and 29 people died.
In July 2022, an ice peak in the Dolomite Alps collapsed, causing a massive avalanche. It demolished a hiking trail on which numerous tourists were travelling. As a result, 11 people died. The cause of the collapse was the abnormal heat. This avalanche is an exception. After all, most avalanches occur in winter and spring.
The situation of forest fires is becoming more and more serious for Italy as the summer heatwave intensifies. Every year, firefighters fight hundreds of fires and thousands of hectares of forest go up in flames.
Serious consequences are usually avoided, although every year several people die in the flames of forest fires.
Tuscany, Sicily, Sardinia, the forests of the Central and Southern Apennines: Umbria, Lazio, Campania, Calabria are the most frequently affected by fires. In 2021, the country even declared a state of emergency.
Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes pose the greatest threat to tourists in Italy, but fortunately these disasters are relatively rare. Nevertheless, their probability should be taken into account when avoiding the south-west of Italy, which is the most prone to such disasters.
Floods are a serious threat to tourists, and they peak in the spring-autumn off-season. Floods, although short-lived, can cause great destruction.
Landslides also peak in spring and autumn, while avalanches are typical of mountainous areas and occur more frequently in winter.
Tsunamis do occur, but they are directly related to earthquakes or eruptions, so they are also unlikely.
Hurricanes, on the other hand, can start as early as August and last throughout autumn and winter, peaking in November and February. They can cause serious damage to coastal towns, including those on the Adriatic Sea, the centre of Italian tourism.
Forest fires occur every summer in the country but are not dangerous for tourist areas, although they can cause disruption of communication between towns and cities.
The best time to visit Italy should be considered the end of spring and the first half of summer. During this period there are fewer natural disasters and the air temperature is the most comfortable.