Natural Disasters in Peru: Past Catastrophes and Future Risks
Peru is an increasingly attractive tourist destination, with a growing number of people choosing to vacation here. Tourists are drawn to the country for its natural beauty, marvelous beaches, mountains, jungles, and ancient city ruins. Many are intrigued by the opportunity to connect with indigenous tribes living far from the conveniences of civilization. It’s important for tourists to research in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they might encounter. While natural disasters can strike unexpectedly, being aware of the potential risks allows you to prepare for them.
Climatic Features of Peru
Peru is situated on the west coast of South America, just south of the equator. The entire country falls within the Southern Hemisphere, despite its northernmost point being only 3 kilometres from the equator.
Peru’s coastline is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, but its waters are cooler compared to other countries at similar latitudes. This is due to the presence of a cold ocean current along Peru’s coast, which significantly lowers both ocean and coastal temperatures. This same Peruvian current contributes to limited rainfall in several coastal regions.
Peru’s landscape is divided into three distinct natural zones. The Costa stretches along the coast, featuring a narrow shoreline that often drops steeply into the ocean. It experiences an arid tropical climate.
Next are the Andes, the tallest mountains in South America, running north to south across the country. These mountains were formed by the collision of oceanic and continental lithospheric plates, an ongoing process that leads to frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The Andes exhibit numerous gorges, steep cliffs, many peaks above the perpetual snowline, and the potential for avalanches.
Beyond the Andes lies the Amazon Rainforest. This unique region is characterized by numerous rivers and impenetrable jungles. Much of it remains inaccessible to tourists, but some national parks and reserves are open to visitors. Amazonia experiences its heaviest precipitation during the winter months, with severe flooding common in February and March.
Natural Factors That Can Trigger Disasters in Peru:
- Seismic activity: Peru experiences high levels of seismic activity due to the collision of two lithospheric plates, resulting in a constant risk of earthquakes. The country witnesses hundreds of small earthquakes annually.
- Volcanism: Peru is home to numerous dormant and active volcanoes, leading to frequent eruptions. However, eruptions of local volcanoes are often not highly intense.
- Mountains: The high mountains pose continuous risks, including rockfalls, landslides, mudslides, and avalanches.
- Extensive coastline: The coastline can be a source of danger during storms and hurricanes. Underwater earthquakes sometimes lead to tsunamis.
- High rainfall: Excessive rainfall can lead to severe flooding, with the Amazonian regions in the east and south of the country most susceptible to this disaster.
The Significance of Studying the History of Natural Disasters
Understanding a country’s history of natural disasters is crucial when planning a trip. Knowing the potential hazards you might encounter will help you choose the right destination, as well as the appropriate time and season to minimize the risk of being caught in a natural disaster.
For instance, being aware that the winter months, particularly from January to April, often bring heavy precipitation and a heightened risk of floods, you can select a different time to explore the Peruvian Amazon.
In this article, you will find a chronological account of past natural disasters that have occurred in the country.
The entire west coast of South America is part of seismically active regions on the planet, situated within the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire. Seismic activity in this area results from the collision of lithospheric plates, leading to numerous tremors. However, truly strong earthquakes occur only once every few years.
The first historical records of earthquakes in Peru appeared with the onset of Spanish colonization. Chronicles have preserved information about earthquakes in 1555, 1582, 1586, and later. The most devastating was the earthquake of 1600, during which approximately 4 thousand people lost their lives, and the city of Arequipa was entirely destroyed.
October 28, 1746
One of the most destructive earthquakes in Peru’s history occurred near Lima, with an estimated magnitude of 8.4. The cities of Lima and Callao were almost completely obliterated, resulting in a death toll exceeding 20 thousand people. In the city of Callao, only 200 people out of a population of five thousand survived.
August 13, 1868
This earthquake is considered the most potent in South America, with modern estimates suggesting a magnitude of 9.5. The epicentre of the tremors was located in the ocean near the coasts of southern Peru and northern Chile. The impact extended not only to Peru and Chile but even to landlocked Bolivia. In Peru alone, 25 thousand people perished, and the cities of Arica and Molendo were entirely destroyed.
May 31, 1970
In terms of the number of victims, this earthquake was the most catastrophic in the history of the country. Despite the tremors not reaching 8 points in strength, the number of victims was staggering. The epicentre of the earthquake was in the ocean off the northern coast of Peru, a densely populated region with many cities. This resulted in the complete destruction of the cities of Yungai and Huarus. Approximately 100 thousand people lost their lives, with more than 3 million affected.
August 15, 2007
An earthquake with a magnitude of 8 occurred in central Peru. The epicentre was once again in the ocean. As a consequence, the city of Pisco bore the brunt of the impact, with numerous houses destroyed, including the collapse of a cathedral where a service was taking place at the time. The total death toll reached 1,000 people, with over 300,000 others injured.
November 28, 2021
One of the most recent significant earthquakes occurred in the north of Peru. The strength of the tremors reached 7.5 points. However, as the epicentre was located in the Amazon, a relatively sparsely populated region, the number of casualties was limited to 12 people. Nonetheless, almost 2 thousand houses were destroyed, and a tower with an age exceeding 400 years collapsed.
Presently, Peru hosts over 30 active and temporarily dormant volcanoes, each carrying the potential for eruptions at any time. Nevertheless, none of the volcanic eruptions in Peru have been catastrophic within the foreseeable historical period, indicating a relatively low threat of volcanism in the country.
The tallest volcano in Peru is Coropuna, standing at 6,425 meters. However, it last erupted many millennia ago.
Of recent volcanic events, noteworthy eruptions include Sabancaya in 2017 and Ubinas in 2008. Both volcanoes soar above 5,000 meters and emit columns of smoke and ash when they erupt. Ubinas’ last eruption involved lava flows, prompting authorities to commence evacuations of nearby villages.
Huaynaputina in southern Peru is the country’s most famous volcano. Its last eruption occurred in 1600. Approximately 30 thousand people now inhabit the volcano’s vicinity, raising concerns that a future eruption could result in significant loss of life and destruction.
Hurricanes, Floods, Landslides
The coast of Peru is not frequently affected by tropical cyclones, though they do occur here. In March 2023, Cyclone Yaku hit the northern parts of the country, reaching Lima. It was accompanied by a powerful hurricane and heavy rainfall, resulting in the destruction of more than 100 houses and 8 fatalities. The cyclone caused an estimated $700 million in damages.
However, the eastern regions of Peru, including the Amazon and parts of the Andes, experience more severe consequences from heavy rains. Flooding is a recurring issue, causing destruction and human casualties each year. The rainy season spans from November to May.
For instance, in late March 2017, the southeastern part of the country faced the most severe floods in the last 100 years. Weeks of continuous rain led to numerous river overflows and landslides. The tourist region of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, was particularly affected. The violent elements easily demolished houses and cars, prompting residents to evacuate. The number of casualties exceeded 70 people.
In February 2023, the southern region of the country experienced heavy rains once again. These rains resulted in numerous mudslides and the destruction of over 200 houses, with a miracle being the reason behind no loss of life.
Tsunamis in Peru occur following major seismic events with their epicenter located in the ocean, not far from the coast. Typically, tsunamis coincide with the destruction caused by the earthquake itself.
This was the case after the earthquake in August 1868, when a tsunami wave struck the port of Molendo and almost completely submerged the city.
A similar situation occurred again in 1877, when after 8.5 magnitude tremors, a tsunami severely affected the southern coast from Pisco to Chile. The tsunami even reached the coasts of California and Japan.
Strong tsunamis were observed in 1940, 1966, and 1996. However, due to the country’s narrow ocean coast surrounded by fairly high cliffs, these tsunamis did not result in significant destruction.
In contrast to neighboring Ecuador, forest fires are more common in Peru. This is due to the arid tropical climate, which leads to the ignition of mountain forests. Typically, fire hotspots are localized and do not pose a serious threat to tourists.
For example, in November-December 2016, approximately 12 thousand hectares of forests in 11 regions of the country burned. However, there was no threat to settlements.
A more perilous situation arose in the summer of 2022 when forest fires raged near the city of Machu Picchu, a popular tourist attraction in the country. During that time, only 20 hectares of forest were burning, but it was close to the hiking trails of the Inca Road.
Earthquakes and floods pose the greatest threat to tourists in Peru.
It is impossible to predict when the next significant earthquake will strike. Therefore, travelers to Peru should be prepared for such an occurrence and know the necessary steps to take in case of an emergency. In the event of ocean earthquakes, there is a possibility of a tsunami.
The danger of volcanic eruptions in the country is minimal, despite the presence of numerous active volcanoes.
The eastern regions of the country, including the Amazon, are prone to recurring floods and landslides, with their peak occurrence during the winter and early spring. Knowing this, travelers can choose a different time of year to visit these areas.
While forest fires do occur in the country, their threat to tourists is minimal.
The best time to visit Peru is from May to October. During this period, the weather is relatively dry, even in the Amazon. However, the ocean’s temperature at this time may not be the most comfortable, at around +20 degrees Celsius. For a beach holiday, the best time is during the winter, from December to April, when the water temperature rises to +24 degrees Celsius.