Natural Disasters in Panama: Catastrophes of the Past and Risks of the Future
Panama is not the most popular tourist destination, but the number of people coming here on holiday is constantly growing. Tourists are attracted to the country by its nature, marvelous beaches, mountains, jungles, rivers, and caves. Many people find it interesting to get acquainted with Indian tribes living far away from the benefits of civilization. Tourists should find out in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing about its potential can help you prepare for it.
Climatic Features of Panama
Panama is located in Central America in the Northern Hemisphere. It is a unique country in that half of it lies in North America and the other half in South America. Few countries in the world span two continents simultaneously.
The Republic is situated on a narrow isthmus that stretches from west to east. The waters of the Caribbean Sea wash Panama from the north, and the Pacific Ocean from the south. The two water basins have recently been connected through the Panama Canal.
The country boasts a coastline that spans almost 2500 kilometers, including several dozen islands.
The country’s topography is complex, with the central part dominated by mountains and ridges. These mountains are higher in the west, disappear in the central region, and then reemerge in the east. Along the indented coastline, lowlands are covered with mangroves.
Panama rests at the convergence of several lithospheric plates, including the South American plate in the east, the North American plate in the west, the Caribbean plate in the north, and the Nazca and Cocos plates in the south. Despite the presence of these lithospheric plates, the region does not experience significant crustal movement. Thus, strong earthquakes are relatively infrequent, and volcanism has been dormant for an extended period.
Panama resides in a zone with a humid tropical climate, characterized by distinct dry and rainy seasons. The rainy season spans from May to October, while the dry season prevails from November to April. The northern coast receives more rainfall than the southern coast, which remains slightly cooler due to Pacific breezes.
Natural factors that can lead to a natural disaster in Panama include:
- Seismic activity, which is relatively high due to the presence of competing lithospheric plates. Occasionally, strong earthquakes in neighboring countries can affect Panama.
- Volcanic activity, although there are currently no active volcanoes in Panama. However, many dormant volcanoes have erupted relatively recently, presenting a potential risk.
- The long coastline, which can be a factor in underwater earthquake emergencies, landslides, and tsunami waves. It also presents a risk of severe storms.
- Seasonal tropical cyclones that lead to severe storms and high rainfall, often resulting in varying degrees of destruction, flooding, and landslides.
The Importance of Studying the History of Natural Disasters
Learning about the history of natural disasters is crucial before traveling to your chosen country. Understanding the potential dangers will help you not only choose the right location but also decide on the best time to visit, minimizing the risk of being at the epicenter of a natural disaster. For instance, knowing that the rainy season, with strong winds and increased rainfall, usually occurs from May to September in the main tourist areas, can help you choose a different travel time. This article provides insights into the chronology of past natural disasters in the republic.
The primary cause of earthquakes in Panama is the collision of lithospheric plates, particularly concentrated in the western region of the country, where the North American, Caribbean, and Cocos plates converge.
May 2, 1621
This earthquake is considered the first officially recorded seismic event in the region. Its epicenter was in the area of the San Miguel Fault, where the Panama Canal now runs. The magnitude was approximately 7 points. At that time, Panama Viejo had a population of about 5,000, which contributed to the avoidance of significant casualties. However, nearly all buildings in the city, including a church and barracks, were destroyed. A small tsunami wave flooded the street closest to the coast.
September 7, 1882
This earthquake, stronger than the previous one, had its epicenter in the Caribbean Sea, near the San Blas Islands, with tremors exceeding 8.2 points. It was felt in the cities of Panama and Colón. A tsunami, up to 3 meters high, struck the coast. Several buildings were destroyed in the cities, with church bell towers suffering damage. The earthquake resulted in 250 casualties, including 75 directly from the tsunami.
April 22, 1991
The most powerful earthquake in recent years occurred in Costa Rica but had a significant impact on Panama. It registered a magnitude of 7.7. The earthquake caused destruction in various settlements, damaging bridges and highways. Boca del Toro Islands also experienced severe damage, with a total of 79 people losing their lives in Panama.
December 25, 2003
The last earthquake that resulted in human casualties occurred in the western part of the country, near the border with Costa Rica. With a magnitude of 6.5, it caused the greatest damage to the town of Puerto Armuels on the Pacific coast, leading to the destruction of several buildings. The earthquake’s effects were also felt in Panama City. The event resulted in two fatalities and 75 others sustaining injuries of varying severity.
Panama is home to at least three dormant volcanoes that have erupted relatively recently. The highest of these is Baru Volcano, which last erupted in 1550. While there has been no volcanic activity since then, scientists studying the volcano believe it could erupt in the coming years, posing a significant threat to the region’s tourism infrastructure due to its popularity as a local attraction. The other two dormant volcanoes, El Valle and La Eguada, have also been inactive for at least the past 500 years.
Cyclones, Floods, and Landslides
Although Panama is located in a tropical climate zone, it is largely outside the basins of both Atlantic and Pacific cyclones. Cyclones can occasionally impact the country’s territory along its edges, resulting in varying degrees of damage. The tropical hurricane season in the Northern Hemisphere occurs during the summer, from May to October, peaking in October and early November.
October 1988 – Hurricane Joan
While Hurricane Joan caused significant destruction in several Central American states, it minimally affected Panama, resulting in flooded houses and landslides that damaged roads. No casualties were reported, and the total damage was estimated at $60 million.
October 1998 – Hurricane Mitch
Hurricane Mitch, one of the most destructive in Central America, also affected Panama. Record rainfall, up to 300 millimeters per day, led to severe flooding in provinces such as Chiriqui and Darien. The flooding resulted in the displacement of residents, causing three fatalities and leaving thousands homeless.
November 2009 – Hurricane Ida
While Hurricane Ida directly impacted Nicaragua to the north of Panama, its reverberations affected Panama significantly. Heavy rains caused flooding in the province of Veraguas, displacing hundreds of residents and flooding several villages up to their roofs.
November 2016 – Hurricane Otto
Hurricane Otto became known as the first hurricane in decades to traverse from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. It passed through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. In the country’s capital, the hurricane uprooted trees, leading to the death of a child when one crushed a parked car. Two people drowned in a river overflow in Panama City, while three others perished in a landslide. The total number of casualties reached 9.
October 2017 – Hurricane Nate
Although Hurricane Nate became the most destructive in the history of neighboring Costa Rica, Panama also felt its impact. The heavy rains affected all central and western provinces, leading to floods and landslides. Violent winds toppled trees, tore off roofs, and flooded rivers swept away cars and destroyed bridges. Over 4,000 homes were completely destroyed, resulting in seven fatalities, with six individuals buried under a massive landslide.
Earthquakes and cyclones pose the greatest threats to tourists in Panama. While earthquakes can occur unpredictably, hurricanes tend to affect Panama from the Caribbean Sea in October and November. While cyclones may not have caused extensive destruction in the country, they are known to bring about floods and landslides, often leading to human casualties. Among tourist regions, the Boca del Toro Islands are particularly vulnerable to cyclones. Other natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, forest fires, droughts, and more, are extremely unlikely in Panama.
The best time to travel to Panama is from November to March when the winter is dry and still hot, and the air and water temperatures remain consistently high, making it an ideal time for a beach holiday. This period also experiences minimal rainfall.