Natural disasters in the Maldives: past and future risks
The Maldives is a popular tourist destination for many countries around the world. Millions of tourists come here every year to relax on the wonderful beaches and enjoy the tranquillity. And of course, they should know in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. A natural disaster always comes unexpectedly, but knowing its potential can help you prepare for it.
Climatic characteristics of the Maldives
The Maldives is located in the subequatorial monsoon climate zone. There are only two seasons of the year: dry and rainy. These seasons depend entirely on the direction of the monsoon.
In winter, the archipelago is dominated by the north-eastern monsoon, which carries dry air from the Indian peninsula. In summer, the southwest monsoon dominates, bringing heavy rainfall from the Indian Ocean.
However, even strong storms do not pose much of a threat to the Maldives due to the strong coral reef that surrounds it. This reef holds back the waves and prevents them from causing much damage.
A bigger threat to the archipelago is rising sea levels. The Maldives is now barely visible above water, and scientists predict that in 100 years the archipelago could sink entirely.
The Maldives is believed to be of volcanic origin, but even if so, no eruptions have occurred in the region for hundreds of thousands of years. Neither have major earthquakes.
Potential hazards that could cause a natural disaster in the Maldives include:
- The islands’ low absolute altitude above sea level. Global warming and rising ocean levels threaten to flood the archipelago in the fairly near future.
- Monsoon climate. Periodically brings heavy rainfall and hurricanes to the archipelago. Threatens flooding and destruction.
- Proximity to regions of volcanic activity. Danger of tsunamis on the islands, though only the strongest ones can cause damage to the Maldives.
The importance of learning about the history of natural disasters in the Maldives
The history of natural disasters is important information to learn before travelling to your chosen country. Knowing the potential dangers that may be ahead of you will not only help you choose the right location, but also the time of year when there is the least risk of being caught in the middle of a natural disaster.
For instance, knowing that the summer months get the most rainfall and the heaviest waves, you might consider visiting the country at a different time of year or place. For surfers, though, the period of high waves is a compelling reason to visit the Maldives.
Read on to get a chronology of natural disasters that have occurred in the Maldives in the past.
In the history of the Maldives, no catastrophic earthquakes have been recorded in the region.
The closest points of seismic activity to the archipelago are northern India in the Himalayas and Tibet, and the islands of Indonesia in the Pacific Ring of Fire. But earthquakes in India simply do not reach the Maldives, and tremors in Indonesia can affect it indirectly, in the form of tsunamis.
Thus, the threat of an earthquake in the atolls is extremely low. Generally, the distance to the epicentre of strong earthquakes is between 1,700 and 2,500 kilometres.
The Maldives’ atolls consist of dozens of small islands surrounded on all sides by a long wall of coral reef. Therefore, even strong tsunami waves are not to be feared. Until the wave reaches the shores of the islands, it has greatly weakened and is no longer a threat.
However, the strongest and most catastrophic tsunamis can damage even this paradise. Such was the case in December 2004, following the largest earthquake in a century off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake shook the island of Sumatra to over 9 magnitude and caused massive shifts in the Earth’s crust. This caused a strong tsunami that struck all countries of the Indian Ocean region without exception.
26 December 2004
Huge killer waves travelled thousands of kilometres and struck the shores of India, Sri Lanka and even East Africa. The Maldives was not spared. But here the impact of the tsunami was the smallest in the region. Bungalows on the islands were destroyed, some 20 large hotels were damaged, and motorbikes and household appliances were swept out to sea. Eighty people were killed and another 30 sought medical attention. The tsunami reached its highest height off Wilufushi Island, 4 metres. In the capital Male, people wandered the streets knee-deep in water. Later, a monument to the victims of the tsunami was erected on the shores of Male’.
Storms and hurricanes
Tropical cyclones in the Maldives can form all year round, but they peak between April and June. About nine severe cyclones occur each year, bringing storms and hurricane force winds to the islands. Typically, cyclones either travel northwards into the Maldives, affecting India and Sri Lanka, or further south, hitting Madagascar and Africa. The Maldives is only touched by an edge.
For example, the strongest cyclone in November 1978 struck Sri Lanka, killing more than 1000 people. In the northernmost atolls of the Maldives, it caused only minor increases in winds and swell.
Coral reefs provide excellent shelter from storm waves, and even strong cyclones only cause disruption to movement between islands. Such was the case in late March 2021, when storm waves prevented tourists from reaching Gan Island.
The tropical climate is not only characterised by two seasons, but also by the unpredictability of the weather. The rains can begin suddenly and end just as abruptly. It is always torrential, very heavy rains that can quickly flood towns and individual islands.
The flooding of May 15, 2013, is typical. Then heavy rains and a storm surge caused flooding on Fuwahmulah Atoll. Individual waves reached heights of 6 metres and simply rolled over the islands of the atoll.
Agricultural fields were washed away, property of local residents and hotels was washed away, but most unpleasantly, drinking tanks were flooded with salty sea water.
In general, floods in the Maldives are short-lived and not life-threatening, always having time to prepare.
A far greater potential threat is posed by a gradual rise in sea level. According to scientists, most of the islands may become uninhabitable within this century. But this rise is long-term and therefore does not pose an immediate threat to holidaymakers.
The biggest threat to tourists in the Maldives are the violent storms for which the Indian Ocean is so famous. But even these are hardly noticed here. The local authorities warn of a bathing ban in good time, but many tourists wait for the storm surge to take spectacular photos or go surfing.
The rains and associated flooding also don’t threaten tourists. They can cause only a short-term inconvenience, as they mostly come in the afternoon and end quickly.
The threat of a tsunami is minimal. The likelihood of a volcanic eruption or earthquake is also extremely low.
In terms of holiday safety in relation to natural disasters, the Maldives is a near-perfect destination. But in the long term, global warming could make the islands uninhabitable and even hide them completely under the waters of the ocean.
The best time to holiday in the Maldives is in winter, from January to April, when rainfall is minimal and sunny days are high.