Natural disasters in Uruguay: past and future risks
Uruguay is a promising and gaining popularity as a tourist destination. Every year the number of people who visit this South American country for its nature, sights and new impressions 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 Uruguay
Uruguay is a typical country in the south-eastern part of South America. It is located entirely in the Southern and Western hemispheres and has a long coastline.
Uruguay is washed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It is located in the subtropical climate zone, that is, just below the latitudes in which strong trade winds are observed. This, to some extent, eliminates the danger of powerful cyclones, but does not exclude their occurrence in principle.
The relief of the country is predominantly hilly, without the presence of high mountains. The highest point of Uruguay rises above sea level at 514 metres, which is difficult to even call a mountain. Therefore, winds from the ocean easily penetrate deep into the territory of the country, bringing with them precipitation and temperature changes. The country’s climate is heavily influenced by these winds.
The subtropical climate is characterized by the division of the year into 4 seasons, a significant differentiation of average monthly temperatures, but also a uniform distribution of precipitation. However, in recent years Uruguay has been increasingly affected by droughts, which is unusual for this type of climate.
The seismic situation in the country is calm, Uruguay is located on an ancient continental platform, far from the collision of tectonic plates.
A large area of the country is covered with forests and pampa, a South American version of steppe, which makes wildfires possible.
Natural factors that can cause a natural disaster:
- Seismic activity. Very low, but not excluding the possibility of earthquakes.
- Extended coastline. May be exposed to storms, cyclones, tsunamis.
- Seasonal hurricanes and storms. Intensify from November to April and can cause destruction on the coastline.
- Heavy rains. It can cause short-term flooding, dam failures at reservoirs, and overflows of numerous rivers.
- Large areas of forests and steppes, drought. There is a probability of occurrence and spread of natural fires.
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 in April the water temperature drops so low that bathing becomes impossible, and in June-August there are often cold rains and strong winds, you can choose a different time for a trip to Uruguay.
From this article, you will learn the chronology of natural disasters that occurred in the republic in the past.
Uruguay is located far from the places of collision of tectonic plates, that is, in a fairly calm seismic zone. Not surprisingly, the locals are practically unfamiliar with the very concept of underground tremors. This affects and leads to severe panic in case of a real earthquake. Perhaps tourists should fear the panic of Uruguayans more than the possible earthquake itself.
15 August 1848
This is the first earthquake off the coast of Uruguay about which any information has been preserved. Its magnitude was estimated at 5-6, and the tremors were felt not only in Montevideo, but also in Buenos Aires on the other side of La Plata.
14 January 1884
The epicentre of this earthquake was in the Gulf of La Plata, near the town of Colonia del Sacramento. The magnitude reached 5.5. The tremors were felt in both Uruguay and Argentina, causing considerable panic. Fortunately, at that time the population in the cities was much lower and there were no high-rise buildings. Therefore, only a few people are reported dead, and almost all of them were injured during the tsunami, which was not strong.
Subsequently, earthquakes occurred repeatedly: in 1894, 1907, 1920, 1971, 1988, but their strength was insignificant. Thus, on 10 January 1990 there was an earthquake with a magnitude of 3.3. It was the only one whose epicentre was located within the mainland of the country.
Currently, seismographs record about 10 small earthquakes in the region of Uruguay every year.
Cyclones, storms and floods
Despite the fact that Uruguay is located to the south of the usual area of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, the country is not spared from this scourge. Sometimes cyclones, called extratropical cyclones by meteorologists, arrive here. They cause strong, hurricane-force winds, storms, rain and flooding. Flooding peaks during the local winter – the period from May to September.
For almost a month, from 23 March to 24 April, Uruguay was flooded by unusually heavy rains. They brought unprecedented amounts of rainfall, causing water levels to rise in many of the region’s rivers. As a consequence, several floods occurred, destroying small settlements. The most catastrophic was the flooding caused by the breach of the Rincón del Bonete dam on the Rio Negro.
23 August 2005
An extratropical cyclone produced a severe storm with hurricane-force winds. Wind speeds in gusts reached 187 kilometres per hour, an absolute record for this South American country. The cyclone originated in the ocean and came ashore near the resort of Kiyu-Ordeig. The storm caused massive damage to the cities of Montevideo, Maldonado and Colonia del Sacramento. Urban infrastructure was damaged, dozens of trees were uprooted and the roofs of houses were torn off. As a result, 10 people died and 10,000 were left without electricity and communications.
19 September 2012
Another strong extratropical cyclone has again reached the coast of Uruguay. The wind speed was 170 kilometres per hour. The storm hit the cities of the southern and eastern coast – Montevideo, San Jose, Colonia del Sacramento. Authorities restricted traffic in the affected cities and advised residents not to leave shelters. But the flooding that hit the city of San Jose left 3 people drowned.
17 January 2022
After a period of unusually intense heatwaves, the capital Montevideo was hit by torrential rains. It rained for hours on end and turned into a real flood. Several districts of the city were flooded, cars and rubbish bins floated on the streets, more than 17 thousand houses were without light. Many residents of the city required urgent evacuation. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
Drought and forest fires
Since the beginning of this century, Uruguay has experienced an increase in the number of droughts, previously completely atypical for the region. Scientists attribute this process to global climate change and the La Niña phenomenon. Thus, droughts were observed in 2008 and 2009. Then they were repeated in 2018. And finally played out in the 2022-2023 season.
The 2022-2023 drought
Reductions in seasonal rainfall began to be observed two years before the drought began. Between October 2022 and February 2023, about 60 per cent of the country was at the mercy of extreme drought. More than 75,000 people in five departments faced drinking water shortages. A number of reservoirs dried up, and mass protests took place in Montevideo due to the increased salinity of the water supply.
The drought caused numerous forest fires, which did not do without human casualties. Thus, on 28 January, the fire came close to the coastal town of La Foresta, where several local residents died from the fire and dense smoke.
The total damage from the drought is estimated at $500 million.
The biggest threat to tourists holidaying in Uruguay is floods caused by heavy rainfall. They peak in the local winter, i.e. May-September, but even at other times extratropical cyclones can bring heavy rainfall and cause flooding in coastal areas.
The hurricane-force winds that accompany cyclones also pose hazards, primarily related to falling trees and parts of roofs.
Forest fires, which are increasingly common in the country due to prolonged drought, can cause loss of life even in coastal towns surrounded by forests.
The drought primarily affects rural populations, but drinking water shortages can be acute in urban areas.
The threat of earthquakes in the country is minimal, and there is no threat of volcanic eruptions. Tsunami waves were sometimes observed, but their height did not exceed 1 metre.
The best time to travel to Uruguay is from November to March. Despite the fact that floods often occur at this time of year, the local summer is the most comfortable time to stay in the country. Air and water temperatures are high at this time, you can swim, sunbathe, and do water sports. From April onwards, the temperature starts to drop, bathing is no longer allowed, which significantly limits the possibilities for a full-fledged holiday.