Natural disasters in Thailand: past and future risks
Thailand is a very popular tourist destination. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on marvellous beaches, admire the beautiful nature, join the values of Buddhism. They should know 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 Thailand
Thailand is located in two climatic zones – tropical and sub-equatorial. The humid tropical climate includes the northern and central regions of the kingdom, while the subequatorial climate includes the coastal and southern regions. In any case, Thailand is characterised by only two seasons: dry and wet. Their onset depends on monsoons, seasonal winds blowing from the ocean side or from the mainland.
The rainy season begins in Thailand with the arrival of the south-west monsoon. It lasts from April to November, in some places delaying until mid-December. The rainiest months on the East Coast (Pattaya, Samui) are September and October. On the western coast (Phuket, Krabi) the most rain falls in May and September.
The dry season lasts from December to April and is caused by tropical air masses.
The relief of the kingdom is predominantly flat, with low plateaus covered with jungle. Only in the north-west, the mountains grow and reach heights of over 2 thousand metres. There are many karst caves everywhere in Thailand.
One third of the country’s territory is covered with forests. Thailand’s rivers are deep, with strong currents, and are prone to sudden rises in water even during the day.
Potentially dangerous factors that can cause a natural disaster include:
- Seismic activity. Relatively low, but earthquakes of up to 7 magnitude have been recorded.
- Large length of the coastline. Can be exposed not only to storms, but also to tsunamis.
- Volcanism. There are no active volcanoes in the country, but relatively nearby are volcanoes of Indonesia, which pose a serious threat.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Causes flooding, surge, destruction during the summer monsoon.
- Heavy rainfall. Lead to sudden changes in river levels, flash floods.
- Mountainous terrain. In the rainy season, there is a high probability of landslides and rockfalls.
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 the maximum amount of precipitation in most parts of Thailand falls in August-October, you can choose a different time to travel to the country.
In this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in Thailand in the past.
Thailand is located in a region with a low level of tectonic activity. Minor earthquakes are often felt here, but major earthquakes are very rare. Here is a list of the most devastating earthquake strikes.
23 March 1889, Myanmar
The earthquake, which occurred in Central Burma, was one of the most powerful in the region. Its magnitude exceeded 8 points. Mandalay, Mingun and other Burmese towns were severely damaged. The flow of the Irrawaddy River was reversed. Echoes of the earthquake were felt in Bangkok, but no casualties were reported.
6 November 1988, China-Myanmar border
The earthquake struck the Shan border plateau at 9pm. The tremors had a magnitude of 7. Directly in the areas adjacent to the epicentre, 939 people died, more than 7 thousand were injured. Also, almost 200 thousand buildings were destroyed. In Thailand, the city of Chiang Rai was affected, where many houses were destroyed.
24 March 2011, Myanmar
The epicentre of the earthquake was near the border of Myanmar and Thailand. The intensity of the tremors exceeded 6.8 magnitude. As a result, hundreds of buildings were destroyed, 150 people were killed, but only one in Thailand. The northernmost Thai city, Chiang Rai, was again affected.
5 May 2014, Chiang Rai
This time, the epicentre of the tremors was located on the territory of Thailand, 27 kilometres west of the long-suffering Chiang Rai. The amplitude of the tremors was 6.1 points. As a result, many houses were damaged, motorways cracked, Chiang Rai International Airport was closed for a while. One person died and several sought medical attention.
Only truly catastrophic tsunamis caused by major earthquakes or volcanic eruptions reach the shores of Thailand. These dangerous phenomena are extremely rare, it is almost impossible to predict their occurrence, but the consequences can be terrible. The most destructive tsunami in the history of the kingdom is still remembered with horror by locals.
26 December 2004
As a result of the most powerful earthquake with magnitude 9.3 near Sumatra Island, a huge tsunami wave fell on all countries of the Indian Ocean region. In Thailand, the resort provinces of Phuket and Krabi were the most affected. On the coast of the islands of Phuket and Phi Phi the wave height was 6 metres, and in the city of Khao Lak even 10. The maximum depth of tsunami penetration into the territory exceeded 2 kilometres. Hundreds of buildings and roads were destroyed, yachts and boats were destroyed. The total number of dead in Thailand exceeded 8 thousand people.
Storms and hurricanes
The hurricane season begins in Thailand in August and lasts until the end of November. It is at this time that powerful cyclones form in the Pacific Ocean, leading to prolonged rainfall and flooding in mainland Thailand. The coastal areas of the Gulf of Thailand are particularly affected by typhoons.
The following storms have been the most severe in recent years:
25-26 November 1962
Tropical storm Harriet hit the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Hurricane-force winds brought a storm surge that wiped out several villages. Deeply moving to the mainland, the wave destroyed more than 10 thousand houses. 900 people died.
1-4 November 1989
Typhoon «Gay» hit the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. The typhoon was short-lived and not very powerful, but its consequences were terrible. In a number of settlements, all buildings were swept away, and the total number of deaths exceeded 860 people. The damage caused by the passage of the storm exceeded 11 billion baht.
3 November 1997
Tropical Typhoon Linda passed over the Gulf of Thailand and hit Nakhonsithammarat province. The typhoon came ashore already weakened, but fishermen who did not have time to return to the shore suffered. A total of 164 people died in the sea.
2 October 2006
Typhoon «Xangxane», which caused huge destruction in the Philippines, weakened and reached the coast of Thailand. Even weakened, it managed to cause considerable damage to coastal infrastructure. Rice fields and other plantations on the area of 2 thousand square kilometres were flooded, 47 people were killed.
During the rainy season, which lasts from late spring to November, heavy rainfall often causes flooding. Some rivers can rise 1–2 metres in a day, flooding the surrounding area. But, as a rule, such floods are short-lived and do not cause serious damage, as the area has long been accustomed to such phenomena. Floods caused by tropical storms are another matter. They can indeed be catastrophic and cause many casualties. Here are some examples of such floods:
4 October 1990. The passage of tropical storm Ira caused severe flooding in Ubonratchathani province. Huge areas of agricultural land and several towns were inundated. Twenty-four people died, and the damage exceeded 6 billion baht.
24 August 1997. Tropical Hurricane Zita swept over the north of the country. Heavy rains led to flooding. Forty-nine people died, and the damage reached 3 billion baht.
22 November 2000. Flooding in southern Thailand, near the border with Malaysia, killed 26 people and caused damage to 2 billion baht.
23 May 2006. Heavy rains triggered a catastrophic rise in river levels in several northern provinces of the kingdom and led to terrible flooding. As a result, 87 people drowned.
October-December 2010. Extensive flooding swept through the southern and central provinces of the country. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed, agricultural fields were flooded, and the transport network was damaged. The death toll totalled 260 people and the damage exceeded 54 billion baht.
Floods in 2011
The 2011 floods were the most catastrophic in the last 50 years. They began in late July and continued until January 2012, totalling 175 days. The disaster affected 65 of the kingdom’s 76 provinces and more than 10 million people. Not only homes and shops were flooded, but also several large enterprises, including those in the automotive and electronics industries. Thus, as a result of the flooding of a factory producing hard discs for computers, there was a shortage of these components on the world market. In total, 15 thousand enterprises and 800 thousand houses were affected, 616 people died. According to various estimates, the total damage exceeded 1 trillion baht.
Severe landslides periodically affect the northern, mountainous provinces of the kingdom. The cause of this natural disaster is always heavy rains. Most often landslides do not cause serious consequences and destruction, but sometimes they have also hit densely populated areas.
22 November 1988
Severe landslides in the mountains affected two provinces at once, Phipun and Lan Saka. The disasters occurred almost simultaneously as a result of very heavy rains. Flows of rock and mud swept away houses and cars, destroyed roads and power lines. In Phipun province, 230 people were killed and 12 in Lan Sak. Authorities estimated the total damage at 1 billion baht.
The start of the rainy season that year was marked by long, relentless downpours. As a result, several dangerous landslides came down from the mountains. At their epicentre was this time, Wang Chin district, Phra province. Forty-three people died.
The second maximum rainfall occurred in August of the same year. It again triggered numerous landslides. In Phetchabun province, 136 people died under rock rubble and another 109 sought medical attention.
Despite the rather humid climate and frequent precipitation, forest fires in Thailand are not rare, although the danger is only in the northern provinces. There are forested mountains and the risk of fire increases during the dry season.
Thus, in March 2020, more than 700 fires were registered in the vicinity of the city of Chiang Mai. Even Doi Suthep Pui National Park was burning. The air in Chiang Mai was heavily polluted with combustion products, but casualties were avoided.
At the end of March 2023, forests in Nakhannaiok province caught fire. The mountainous terrain prevented rapid localisation of the fire, and even helicopters were called in to extinguish the fire.
Smaller fires are regularly reported, but usually do not cause significant damage.
The greatest threat to tourists in Thailand is posed by tropical storms and cyclones. They peak in late summer and last until December. The shores of the Gulf of Thailand, where Pattaya and Samui are located, suffer the most from storms. But fortunately, the peculiarities of the coastline make Pattaya almost invulnerable to these storms.
Also, very dangerous are floods, which can engulf large regions both on the coast and in the central provinces. They peak during the rainy season, that is, from May to October.
Rains can also cause landslides, but these are more likely to affect the northern regions, where tourists are always scarce.
The most dangerous places for tsunamis are the shores of the Andaman Sea, where the resorts of Phuket and Krabi are located. But it is almost impossible to predict the occurrence of tsunamis in advance.
Earthquakes in the country take place only in the mountainous northern regions, where several tectonic plates collide. The central and southern regions of the kingdom do not suffer from earthquakes.
Forest fires in the kingdom are common in winter, but do not cause much inconvenience to tourists. Their main centres are located in the mountainous regions in the north.
The best time to travel to Thailand is from late December to April. At this time, precipitation is minimal, tropical storms subside, and air and water temperatures remain comfortable.