Natural disasters in Papua New Guinea: past and future risks
Papua New Guinea is an increasingly popular tourist destination. Every year more and more people come to the islands to relax on marvellous beaches, learn about the culture and customs of the natives and admire the beautiful nature. They should find out in advance what kind of natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. Disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing its potential can help you prepare for it.
Climate characteristics of Papua New Guinea
The island of New Guinea is located in the Southern Hemisphere near the equator. Its shores are washed by the waters of the Pacific Ocean and, to a lesser extent, the Indian Ocean. The length of the coastline of the state exceeds 5 thousand kilometres.
The proximity of the equator reduces the risks of being in the epicentre of cyclones, which spread in slightly higher latitudes.
The climate of the island is from subequatorial to humid tropical. There is no clearly defined boundary between the seasons. Temperatures are approximately the same throughout the year.
The island is located in a zone of high humidity, but in different parts of the island the maximum rainfall can fall in different months. For example, along the south, the rainy season lasts from November to April, and in the northern city of Lae – from May to October.
Geologically, New Guinea belongs to Australia. The island is located at the very edge of the Australian lithospheric plate, which collides with the Pacific plate. This leads to numerous earthquakes and volcanic activity.
Much of the island is covered by high mountains, where rockfalls and rock falls are possible.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. The collision of two lithospheric plates, on the border of which the island is located, threatens with strong earthquakes and tsunamis.
- Large length of the coastline. Threatens the country with flash floods, tsunami strikes, landslides and other troubles.
- Volcanism. Papua’s location in the Pacific Ring of Fire zone leads to strong volcanic activity.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Although major tropical cyclones pass away from New Guinea, their threat is high.
- Heavy rains. Can cause short-term flooding and overflow of mountain rivers.
- High mountains. They can cause landslides and rockfalls.
- High forest cover. There is a probability of occurrence and spread of forest fires.
The importance of studying the history of natural disasters
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing about the potential dangers that may await you will not only help you choose the right place, but also the time and season of the year when the threat of being in the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that the tropical cyclone season, when strong storms most often occur, starts in November and lasts until April, you can choose a different time to travel to New Guinea.
From this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred on the island in the past.
Earthquakes and tsunamis
Papua is in an area of high seismic activity due to the collision of two lithospheric plates. Small earthquakes occur here with enviable regularity, and about once a year there is a fairly strong seismic event. Here is a list of the most notable earthquakes of recent times.
17 July 1998
A strong magnitude 7 earthquake struck 25 kilometres off the coast in the very north of the country. Houses in nearby towns swayed, causing people to run out into the streets. But the brunt came later. The earthquake triggered a massive underwater landslide. This triggered a tsunami. The tsunami hit the coast, causing massive destruction. The maximum wave height is estimated at 15 metres. 2,200 people died.
16 November 2000, New Ireland
It is not only New Guinea that suffers from earthquakes. Other islands, which are part of Papua, also suffer. Thus, in 2000, a strong earthquake occurred in New Ireland. Its magnitude reached 8 points. It also led to a tsunami, but rather weak – the wave height did not exceed 3 metres. The greatest damage was caused in Bougainville, where hundreds of houses were destroyed. Two people died.
22 January 2017, Bougainville
A strong earthquake occurred in the very centre of the island of Bougainville. Its magnitude exceeded 7.9. Underground tremors led to the formation of numerous landslides and destruction of buildings. The town of Arave was particularly affected. Five teenagers in different parts of the island died – all of them trapped under the rubble.
25 February 2018, Como
A powerful earthquake occurred in the central part of the island of New Guinea. Its magnitude reached 7.5 points. The earthquake was accompanied by numerous aftershocks and was felt even on the Indonesian part of the island. The cities of Como and Mendi were particularly affected. The total number of victims was 160 people, and more than 17 thousand were forced to relocate to other areas.
11 September 2022, Morobe
This time, the earthquake occurred in the north-west of the country. Its origin was located at a depth of 39 kilometres and its magnitude was 7.9. The tremors caused numerous building collapses, rockfalls on mountain roads and landslides. A local hydroelectric power plant was damaged, causing power outages in a number of communities. At least 21 people died as a result.
New Guinea lies within the volcanic Pacific Ring of Fire. There are 80 volcanoes in this region, of which 18 are active. Below is a list of the most active volcanoes on the island.
This stratovolcano is located on the island of the same name, 13 kilometres off the coast of New Guinea. It erupts regularly, due to which 9 thousand people were evacuated from the island in 2004. Currently, Manam Island is uninhabited. The last eruption took place in 2013. Pyroplastic flows regularly reach the sea coast.
An active stratovolcano on the island of the same name. Has not erupted for a long time, but has been continuously active since 2009.
A stratovolcano in the Dampier Strait. Known for its catastrophic eruption in 1888, when an explosion almost completely destroyed the island on which it was located. Now it is part of a caldera and is constantly active. In 2007 there was a strong earthquake, which caused a local tsunami and led to the evacuation of the population from neighbouring islands.
An entire volcanic island off the north coast. It is home to several craters. The last eruption dates back to 1993. A very violent eruption occurred in 1660 and was accompanied by the release of huge amounts of ash, becoming a symbol of the Dark Ages in local legends.
An active volcano on the island of New Britain. The last eruption took place in 1994 and severely affected the town of Rabaul. The townspeople were able to evacuate in time, but 5 people were still killed, one of whom was struck by a lightning strike accompanying the ash cloud.
Storms and hurricanes
Tropical cyclones rarely touch the shores of New Guinea, passing either northwards and hitting the Philippines or southwards. However, severe storms during winter are not uncommon in the country. For example, one of the most powerful hurricanes in recent years occurred in January 2015.
Strong winds hit the province of Jiwak. The storm was accompanied by heavy rains, which led to flooding. The Kimil River overflowed its banks and flooded several villages. Coffee plantations were most affected, with hundreds of trees destroyed.
Floods and forest fires
A peculiarity of the subequatorial and tropical climate is a significant amount of precipitation. Thus, Papua is located in the zone of increased moisture, for a year here can fall from 5000 to 8000 millimetres of precipitation. Often, tropical downpours become the cause of localised and short-lived floods.
17 February 2018, Bougainville
Bougainville Island is considered the wettest place in the country. It receives more rainfall here than anywhere else. That February, it rained continuously for almost a week, causing the water to rise catastrophically. The torrents washed away houses, destroyed roads and overturned cars. Several settlements were completely cut off from the outside world.
21 November 2007
The worst and most destructive flooding in recent years occurred in the north-east of the country. A tropical cyclone caught New Guinea by the edge, but this led to severe flooding and forced evacuation of the population. Even military units and helicopters were sent to help the residents. Several settlements were affected, hundreds of houses were destroyed. The number of dead and missing people totalled 160.
Forest fires are rare in Papua, thanks in no small part to the humid climate. However, there have been some fairly large fires in the past, often caused by volcanic eruptions. Scientists have found that a number of forests have sprung up on the site of past fires.
The biggest threat to tourists holidaying in Papua New Guinea is earthquakes. This natural disaster occurs regularly, but fortunately is not characterised by high intensity. Global destruction has not been recorded, which is explained by the low population density and the absence of high-rise buildings. With the growing flow of tourists and the development of appropriate infrastructure, earthquakes may begin to pose a real danger.
There is a danger of eruption in Papua. There are many active volcanoes.
The danger of tropical cyclones in the country is insignificant, although in the rainy season the islands are hit not only by heavy rains, but also by strong winds. This often causes flooding and relatively minor damage.
The mountainous terrain is also a source of increased danger. Landslides caused by earthquakes or rainfall are common here.
There is little or no risk of forest fires in Papua.
The overall disaster risk level is rated as medium.
The best time to travel to Papua New Guinea is from May to September. This is the time of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when the tropical cyclone season ends and rainfall decreases significantly. However, for the north of the country, the summer months of June-August are the best time to visit.