Natural disasters in Spain: past and future risks
Spain is a very popular tourist destination. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on the luxurious beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, 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 Spain
Spain lies in the zones of Mediterranean, maritime and temperate continental climate. In the mountains there are clearly visible zones of altitudinal belt, and in the Canary Islands there is a dry subtropical climate.
Rainfall increases from the end of May to the beginning of September. This time can be called the rainy season. In winter, there are also heavy downpours and snowfalls accompanied by stormy, hurricane-force winds.
The border between the African and European plates runs along the south of the Iberian Peninsula, and this place is characterised by high tectonic activity.
The Canary Islands are volcanic in origin and, in addition to the arid climate, there are frequent eruptions accompanied by small tremors.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. It can lead to strong earthquakes with destruction and casualties in the southern regions of the kingdom.
- Volcanism. Volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands can cause loss of life and impede air travel to the mainland.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Causes coastal damage, torn roofs and uprooted trees.
- Heavy rainfall. Lead to short-term flooding, causing rushing torrents of water that carry away cars and people.
- Hot, dry weather. Causes forest fires.
- High mountains. It can cause landslides, avalanches and rockfalls that pose a threat to tourists.
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 at the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that in summer Spain is at the mercy of rains that cause floods, you can choose a different time of the year for travelling to the country.
From this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Spain in the past.
Spain is located in a seismically active zone and earthquakes are frequent. In most cases they do not cause destruction or casualties, but sometimes the intensity of earthquakes can reach 7-8 magnitude. Here are some of the most catastrophic earthquakes that have occurred in the kingdom in the past.
22 September 1522
Southern Andalusia was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of up to 7. The cities of Almeria, Granada and the Alhambra Palace were affected. More than 2,500 people died.
1 November 1755
The strongest earthquake of the region occurred in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the Strait of Gibraltar. Its magnitude reached 9 points. Portugal suffered most of all from a blow of elements, where the capital Lisbon was almost wiped off the face of the earth. But the southern Atlantic coasts of Spain also suffered. In particular, the city of Cadiz, the main Spanish port in the Atlantic, suffered significant damage. The total death toll exceeded 50,000 people.
25 December 1884
Once again, the autonomous community of Andalusia becomes a victim of the earthquake. The strength of the shocks reached 6.7 points, and its epicentre was located near Granada, one of the poorest regions of the country at that time. Therefore, the destruction was significant – tens of thousands of houses were destroyed. Under their debris killed more than 1200 people, more than 3 thousand more were injured.
25 January 2016
In the XXI century, there have not yet been strong earthquakes on the territory of the country. The most significant seismic event was an earthquake in the Alboran Sea, between the coasts of Morocco and Spain. The strength of the tremors exceeded 6.3 points. Destructions of medium severity were recorded in the enclave of Melilla. One person was killed.
On the Spanish mainland, there are no active volcanoes. But there are quite a lot of them on the Canary Islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean. Eruptions in the Canaries occur regularly, forcing the evacuation of nearby villages, but rarely end in serious destruction. The following earthquakes have been the most severe this century:
11 October 2011, Hierro
This is the smallest island in the Canary archipelago and has an active underwater volcano near its shores. Previously it erupted in the XVIII century and now the events have repeated in our time. The eruption was not catastrophic, but more than 500 inhabitants of the nearby village were evacuated. Volcanic activity continued until mid-November.
19 September 2021, Cumbre Vieja
The only volcanic eruption on the islands of La Palma in modern times. Lasted until 25 December. It was accompanied by lava flows and minor tremors of 3-4 magnitude. The authorities had to evacuate more than 5 thousand people from dangerous regions. Lava flows destroyed more than 450 buildings, the airport was temporarily closed. There were no casualties.
The Atlantic coast of Spain and the Canary Islands poses the greatest risk of tsunamis. The shores of the Mediterranean Sea can be considered safe from tsunamis, although some scientists warn that serious disasters can be expected here in the next 30 years. So far, Cadiz is considered the most prepared region for a tsunami. Significant safety measures have been taken here: sirens and shelters have been installed on the coast, evacuation routes have been indicated and rescuers are being trained. And it is not surprising, because it is this region that has suffered the most from tsunamis in the past.
1 November 1755
The most destructive tsunami in the history of the Iberian Peninsula occurred after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Then the epicentre of the shocks was in the Atlantic Ocean, and their strength exceeded 9 points. As a result, tsunami waves struck the coasts of Portugal and Spain. Their height exceeded 20 metres. In Lisbon, the tsunami impact, in addition to flooding, led to the formation of a firestorm and fire, almost completely destroyed the city. This happened because of the many candles that were burning in honour of All Saints’ Day. The impact of the tsunami was felt in the UK, the Antilles and even Brazil.
Storms and hurricanes
Spain is less affected by hurricanes and storms than the UK, France or Germany, but even here, strong cyclones are not uncommon, especially in winter. These cyclones bring not only wind but also heavy precipitation, often hail. Sometimes tornadoes are observed off the coast of Spain.
Thus, in early March 2010, cyclone Xynthia hit Spain. The maximum wind speed reached 200 kilometres per hour. The northern regions of the country suffered most of all, where century-old trees were torn out and cars were overturned. As a result of the cataclysm, 3 people died.
In January 2020, tropical storm Gloria hit the country. Wind gusts reached 100 kilometres per hour. The storm brought a huge amount of snow and caused several avalanches in the Pyrenees. As a result, only in Spain 4 people died.
The flood season in Spain begins in May and can last all summer until September. At this time the country is covered with thunderclouds and hurricanes are common. Here are a few recent events typical of the region.
2 September 2021
Tropical downpours covered almost all of Spain. Madrid, Valencia, Catalonia, and Toledo were particularly affected. Flooding flooded the lower floors of many houses, carried away cars, washed away roads. More than 10,000 people were left without power. In some places, the water was coming in so fast that people had to run for their lives.
3 May 2022, Valencia
The south-east of the country was at the mercy of a slow-moving storm that brought heavy rainfall. In some regions, more than 250 millimetres of rain fell in a 24-hour period. Car tunnels were flooded in cities, railway services were interrupted, and rescuers repeatedly rescued people trapped in water on the roofs of their cars.
7 July 2023, Zaragoza
A torrential downpour brought record rainfall to the city, up to 52 centimetres per square metre. The turbulent torrents flooded streets, demolished cars carrying people, and washed out railway lines, cutting off services to Barcelona. Large hailstones fell in several neighbouring provinces, shattering windows and damaging cars.
Landslides and avalanches
Landslides are common in Spain’s mountainous regions. They are triggered by rainfall or tremors. Landslides can also occur in the Canary Islands. Avalanches are more common at the end of winter, when the snow cover increases.
One of the largest landslides in recent times occurred on 7 February 2015 in Asturias, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. A layer of soil more than 3 metres wide came down on a motorway and completely blocked traffic in both directions. By happy coincidence, none of the people were injured.
But not all landslides end as safely. In December 2021, for example, 2 people were killed by a landslide in northern Navarra.
Avalanches can also pose a serious danger, especially for lovers of alpine skiing. On 8 January 2008, three skiers died in an avalanche on the slopes of the Spanish Pyrenees in Aragon.
At the beginning of 2021, passengers of several cars were trapped in the snow after an avalanche in the north of the country. Rescuers managed to extract them, but a second avalanche killed one person.
Forests in Spain cover an area of over 67 million hectares, which together with the hot and relatively arid climate makes the country very vulnerable to possible fires. In recent years, the situation has become increasingly difficult as average global temperatures increase due to climate change.
The worst wildfires raged on the peninsula in the summer of 2022. First, the mountain forests in the Sierra de Mijas caught fire. Authorities hastily evacuated more than 2,000 people. Then the forests in Castile and León caught fire. There, more than 9,000 hectares of forest completely burned out. By the end of the summer, the fire engulfed forests in the vicinity of Zaragoza. The authorities had to evacuate 1500 people, and the fire covered 20 thousand hectares.
However, so far the largest fires remain the fires of 2012. Then fires covered not only the mainland of the country, but also the Balearic and Canary Islands. The total number of fires exceeded 10 thousand fires. The fire destroyed 138 thousand hectares of forest. The most affected region was Castile, where 13 thousand hectares were burnt out, and 4 people died in the fire.
The greatest threat to tourists in Spain is flooding in summer and landslides with avalanches in winter. Floods occur as a result of heavy rainfall, which is characteristic of the subtropical climate. In a short time, torrents of water can flood the streets of cities and carry away people and even cars.
Landslides and avalanches are also caused by heavy precipitation, but in the form of snow. They are characteristic of the mountainous areas of the country, mainly in the north. This is where the winter tourist season in ski resorts is at its peak.
Earthquakes pose a threat only to the southern regions of the country, where the junction of the European and African tectonic plates is located. Tsunamis potentially threaten the Atlantic coast of the country. Volcanic eruptions are frequent in the Canary Islands, but also pose only a potential hazard.
Tropical cyclones usually avoid Spain and do not cause catastrophic damage. They peak during the winter months.
Forest fires often occur in summer, but their hotbeds are located far from the coast and tourist centres.
The best time to visit Spain is spring and autumn, when there is no intense heat and torrential downpours, low probability of storms and hurricanes.