Natural disasters in Tunisia: past and future risks
Tunisia is a popular tourist destination for many European countries. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come here every year to relax on the luxurious beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and to discover the centuries-old history of the country. And of course they should know in advance what natural disasters or catastrophes they may encounter. Natural disasters always come unexpectedly, but with knowledge of their potential, you can prepare for them.
Climatic characteristics of Tunisia
Tunisia lies in the Mediterranean and tropical arid climate zones. Along the coast, the climate is milder and there is frequent heavy rainfall, particularly during the winter. A little further inland is the Sahara, one of the driest and hottest deserts in the world. Rainfall is rare there.
Most of the country is a hilly plain. Only in the north-west are the Atlas Mountains. These are low mountains. The maximum height of the mountain range does not exceed 1500 metres.
Potential hazards that could cause a natural disaster include:
- Tropical climate, heat and low rainfall, leading to frequent sand and dust storms.
- Catastrophic downpours in some areas cause localised flooding.
- Long coastline, where severe storms, hurricanes and tsunamis can occur.
- Mountainous areas. Rock falls and landslides are possible there. Fires are also frequent in mountain coniferous forests.
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 waiting for you, you can not only choose the right place, but also the time, the season of the year when the threat of being at the epicentre of a natural disaster will be minimal.
For example, knowing that Tunisia experiences storms, hurricanes and floods in autumn, you may choose to travel to Tunisia at a different time of year.
This article provides a chronology of disasters that have occurred in Tunisia in the past.
Tunisia lies on the ancient African shield, formed millions of years ago. To the north are the Atlas Mountains, also ancient and tranquil. There are no active volcanoes in the region, and there is little tectonic activity. In the last hundred years, there have been no earthquakes of more than 5.8 magnitude recorded in the country. On average, every year, Tunisia experiences 2–3 earthquakes of magnitude 4 to 5. Below are the most typical seismic events of recent times:
8 March 2018
One of the strongest earthquakes of this century occurred a few kilometres from the city of Tunis. Its epicentre was 20 kilometres deep, and its magnitude was 4.7. Thousands of people in the capital ran out onto the streets in panic, but no destruction was recorded. There were no victims either.
5 April 2023
In the afternoon, strong underground tremors were felt by residents of Tunisia’s border areas with Algeria. The magnitude was 5 and the epicentre was near the oasis of Chebika. The earthquake’s aftershocks were felt in many towns in northern Tunisia, but no damage or casualties were reported.
The lack of strong earthquakes in the region does not rule out the possibility of huge tsunami waves. After all, the Mediterranean region itself is quite tectonically active and strong earthquakes are common.
For example, in 365 A.D. Crete was hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of over 8. It generated a tsunami wave that swept across the Mediterranean.
Tunisia was also affected by this wave. No historical evidence of the event has survived, however, archaeologists recently discovered the sunken Roman town of Neapolis (Nabeul). It was destroyed by the tsunami.
Despite its fame as an arid African country, Tunisia is often plagued by torrential rainfall, resulting in flooding. Coastal, tourist areas suffer from this element, so when planning your holiday, you need to be aware of this danger.
The country’s rainy season begins with the arrival of autumn. In late September 2018, for example, Tunisia was hit by the heaviest downpours in a century. Eyewitnesses reported torrents of water that swept away everything in their path. Thousands of tourists were evacuated from hotels. But even these measures weren’t enough, and five people died. Not only the north-eastern regions were affected, but also the tourist regions of Sousse and Monastir.
The 2018 floods remain the largest and most destructive in history, but less catastrophic floods occur here regularly.
Landslides and mudslides
Landslides and mudslides can occur in the mountainous regions of Tunisia after heavy rainfall. As a rule, they do not pose a serious threat to the population and communications, but their possibility should be taken into account.
For example, there is a record of catastrophic mudslides in 1906. Several large landslides destroyed the railway line between Tunis and Algeria, killing 6 people.
But no such disasters have occurred in more recent times.
Unlike Egypt or the UAE, Tunisia does not experience very strong sandstorms. This is despite the fact that only 6 days out of 100 desert winters are windless. The hot sirocco brings a lot of sand, but it does not reach the coastal tourist areas, remaining in the desert.
Visibility in the coastal towns is occasionally poor, and people are advised to wear masks to protect their respiratory tract and eyes from the dust. So when planning your holiday in the country, you should only think of sandstorms if you intend to visit the desert.
Storms and hurricanes
The hurricane season in Tunisia begins in autumn. The Mediterranean Sea is turbulent at this time, with frequent heavy rains that are driven to the coast by strong winds.
In 2018, for example, the downpours that led to the flooding were accompanied by gale force winds and high waves.
A similar situation occurred at the end of September 2016. Bad weather raged across the north of the country. Huge waves raged in Hammamet Bay and even a tornado was seen in Monastir.
Incidentally, water tornadoes are not a rare phenomenon in Tunisia. They occur during strong winds and thunderstorms in the sea and rarely come ashore. In November 2021, for example, several tornadoes were observed near the city of Bizerte, which dissipated after 30 minutes.
Although Tunisia is located in the Sahara Desert region, there are also real forested areas in the country. They are located to the north, in the Atlas Mountains. In the dry season, forests can catch fire.
In August 2021, for example, the number of forest fires exceeded 150. The fire reached residential homes, resulting in household gas explosions. Thanks to the actions of the emergency services, casualties were avoided at the time.
A similar situation occurred at the end of July 2022. The fire then engulfed the Bukernin massif near the republic’s capital. The spread of the flames was quickly brought under control and there were no property damage or casualties.
In the same year, in August, a fire near the town of Tabarka spread to orchards, leaving behind a bare scorched field.
The biggest threat to tourists in Tunisia is the hot, arid climate, not natural disasters. In fact, there have been no really serious disasters here for a long time. However, the elements can spoil your holiday.
Unpleasant for tourists may be, for example, holidays in the autumn. At this time of year, Tunisia is shaken by storms bringing heavy rainfall. Often this leads to flooding.
In the north of the country in the second half of summer, localized forest fires are possible, but for the tourist centres they do not pose a threat. Landslides and sandstorms are also not dangerous. The former are localised in mountainous areas, the latter are predominantly in desert areas.
Earthquakes, though not uncommon in the country, are of low intensity and do not cause any destruction.
The best time for a holiday in Tunisia is late spring and early summer, when water temperatures are comfortable and the sea is calm. But also in autumn there are a lot of tourists in the country.