Natural disasters in South Africa: past and future risks
South Africa is an extremely popular tourist destination. Every year the number of people who come to the country to go on safari in the Kruger Park or to relax on the beaches of the Eastern Cape Province, to get acquainted with the culture and customs of the aborigines, to admire the beautiful nature increases. 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 features of South Africa
South Africa is a country in southern Africa, which is washed by the waters of two oceans at once: the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. This is what has a decisive influence on the nature of the climate in South Africa. Along the western coasts of the country runs the cold Benguela Current, which lowers the average air temperature on the coast. The warm Cape Needle Current runs along the eastern shores of the country, increasing average temperatures.
The distribution of precipitation also depends on these currents. In the west there is little precipitation, while in the east there is much more, up to 2000 millimetres per year. Therefore, heavy torrential rains and floods are more characteristic of the eastern part of South Africa.
The country’s rainfall peaks in the local summer – December-February. But in a number of places on the coasts, heavy rainfall is possible all year round. These are areas of subtropical Mediterranean climate.
South Africa is located just south of the usual zone of distribution of tropical cyclones in the Indian Ocean, so only a small part of them reaches the territory of the country, bringing precipitation and strong winds.
Most of the country is covered with mountains and plateaus. There are snowfalls in winter and heavy rains in summer, causing rockfalls and landslides.
Most of the territory is covered with forests, which often burn.
South Africa is located on an ancient shield, an outcrop of the basement of the African platform. The tectonic situation here is calm, and there have been no crustal movements for a long time. That is why there are almost no earthquakes here, and even less volcanic eruptions.
- Seismic activity. Weak. Occurs more often as echoes of earthquakes with epicentre in neighbouring countries, in particular, in Mozambique. Sometimes earthquakes are caused by man-made reasons.
- Long coastline. Washed by two oceans, the country is constantly at risk of a storm, cyclone or the arrival of a tsunami.
- Volcanism. There are currently no active volcanoes in South Africa. The danger is minimal.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Intensify from November to April and can cause coastline destruction along the southeast coast. The west and south coasts are often affected by severe storms.
- Heavy rains. Can cause short-term flooding and overflow of numerous rivers.
- High mountains and plateaus. Increase the likelihood of landslides and rockfalls, threatening transport links and settlements.
- High forest cover and long savannahs. There is the potential for forest fires to occur and spread.
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 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 in the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that the season of tropical cyclones and rains, when floods most often occur, begins in late December and lasts until early March, you can choose a different time to travel to South Africa.
In this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that occurred in the republic in the past.
Earthquakes and tsunamis
Seismic activity in South Africa is at a low level. For a century in the country occurs no more than 20 earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 5 points. Very strong earthquakes are not observed here. Many small earthquakes are anthropogenic in nature and are related to mining.
29 September 1969, Tulbagha
This earthquake was the strongest and most destructive in the last 100 years. Its magnitude exceeded 6.3. The epicentre was near the town of Tulbagh, near Cape Town. As a result, buildings in several small towns, including the historic Church Street in Tulbagh, were badly damaged. Twelve people died.
5 August 2014, Orkney
A magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck in northeastern South Africa. This is a major mining area and the investigation revealed that the quake was caused by mining. The echoes of the earthquake were felt across the country as far as Durban. One person died at the epicentre, and more than 30 sought medical attention.
Tsunami 26 December 2004
South Africa became the country furthest from the epicentre of the catastrophic earthquake off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which was hit by a tsunami. Waves 2–3 metres high were observed in a number of places. A man died in Port Elizabeth. This happened 8500 kilometres from the epicentre. Another boy died in the town of Gonubie. High waves forced to close for several hours the harbour of Durban, the largest port in South Africa.
Cyclones and floods
Traditionally for the Southern Hemisphere, the tropical cyclone season begins in November and can last until the end of April. During this time, the east of South Africa is hit hard by hurricane-force winds and torrential rains. These often cause flooding, destruction and, in mountainous areas, landslides.
January 2021, Cyclone Eloise
One of the strongest tropical cyclones to reach South Africa was Eloise, which formed on 15 January. Forming in the central Indian Ocean and passing through the Strait of Mozambique, Eloise made landfall. Wind speed in gusts exceeded 215 kilometres per hour. The hurricane was uprooting trees and power poles. For the first time in many years, the Limpopo overflowed. As a result, 10 people died, including 2 children.
April 2021, Depression Issa
Beginning on 8 April, heavy rains continued for several days. They caused numerous spills and floods in the southeastern provinces of the country. As a result, more than 2,000 houses and over 4,000 slums were flooded and destroyed by the wind. Bridges and roads were destroyed, and a number of hydroelectric stations suspended operations, causing power outages. In total, about 450 people died.
February-March 2023, La Niña
La Niña, a natural phenomenon that is the opposite of El Niño and carries cold air masses, hit the eastern provinces of South Africa. Many rivers in the Orange Basin overflowed their banks, destroying roadways and bridges, demolishing homes, and damaging farmland. The rampage killed 18 people and caused more than $240 million in economic losses.
Storms are also common along the South African coast. The peak of the storm season coincides with the local summer, the period from November to March, but they occur at other times as well.
The strongest storm in 100 years hits the Western Cape Province. It was immediately dubbed the Biblical Flood because of the abundant rainfall it brought. Communication between Cape Town and a number of neighbouring towns was disrupted, winery farms and bridges were damaged, power lines were washed away. Eight deaths were reported.
22 December 2021
An unusual phenomenon for South Africa occurred on New Year’s Eve. Hail fell on the eastern coast of the country. The hailstones were the size of tennis balls and easily penetrated the roofs of houses and smashed car windows. The downpour that accompanied the hail caused severe flooding in several regions. Forecasters warn that with climate change, such events will become more frequent.
Drought and forest fires
A cold ocean current travelling along the country’s west coast brings dry weather. Rainfall from the east coast is trapped by mountain systems and also fails to reach the western provinces. This creates favourable conditions for drought and forest fires. Unsurprisingly, forested areas in the Cape Town area are the most frequently affected by fire.
Severe forest fires engulfed the entire Western Cape Province. The fire raged for a fortnight and covered 86,000 hectares of forest. Hundreds of firefighters could not bring the fire hotspots under control, residents of several settlements had to evacuate. That year, the number of fires exceeded 14 thousand, and 44 people died in the fire.
A large forest fire raged for several days in the neighbourhood and on the slopes of Table Mountain near Cape Town. The fire came close to residential neighbourhoods and even destroyed the campus and library of a university.
A drought of unprecedented severity is gripping South Africa. The drought started in October 2018 and lasted intermittently until January 2021. It was caused by the intensification of the El Niño current in the South Atlantic. The drought caused huge damage to agriculture, although neighbouring Namibia was even more severely affected, with a state of emergency declared.
The biggest threat to tourists on holiday in South Africa is tropical cyclones and storms, which bring large amounts of rainfall and are accompanied by severe storms. These disasters can lead to significant flooding and loss of life, and in the most popular tourist regions.
The risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the country is minimal.
Forest fires that occur near major cities, such as Cape Town, can be dangerous. Fires peak in the dry winter months of May-October.
The north-western parts of the country, close to the Namib Desert, are prone to drought.
The best time to travel to South Africa is from March to May and August to December. This is the time of local autumn and spring, when rainfall is minimal and air and seawater temperatures remain quite high and comfortable. Droughts often occur at this time, but they do not threaten tourist regions.