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Natural Hazards in Peru

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A variety of natural hazards occur in Peru, some of which are limited to only one of Peru’s three main geographic regions while others occur throughout the country. The Andean region in particular, says Anthony Oliver-Smith in The Angry Earth, has “always been a very hazard-prone region of the world.”

For most travelers, these hazards are unlikely to cause any serious problems. You may well experience some travel delays caused by flooding and landslides -- especially if you are traveling in Peru by bus -- but the risk of injury or worse is minimal.

At times, however, a major disaster can lead to extensive disruption and, in the worst cases, loss of life -- a situation that can be exaggerated by Peru’s status as a developing country. According to Young and León in Natural Hazards in Peru, “Vulnerability in Peru to natural hazards is amplified by poverty and by a disconnection between what science can predict or what people will do.”

The following natural hazards are the most common in Peru, and are typically linked to climatology or geology. Many occur alongside or shortly after another related hazard, such as an earthquake leading to a series of landslides.

Earthquakes

Peru is very prone to earthquakes, a fact reflected by the number of signs stating “Zona Segura en Casos de Sismos” (“Safe Zone in Case of Earthquakes”). The country often experiences as many as 200 small quakes each year, with one major quake occurring every five to six years on average. Major quakes within the last 50 years include the 1970 quake in the north central coastal and Andean regions of Peru (killing an estimated 70,000 Peruvians), the 1990 Alto Mayo quake and the earthquake that struck Pisco in 2007.

Landslides and Avalanches

Small landslides occur frequently in Peru, especially in highland and jungle regions during the rainy season, often blocking roadways and causing delays in overland transportation. Many of these are prompted by human activities, such as the construction of the roads themselves. Naturally-occurring landslides are primarily the result of gravity, but factors such as slope stability also play a significant role. Two of the most destructive landslides in the last fifty years were the result of avalanches descending from Nevado Huascarán, the highest mountain in Peru. In 1962, a hanging glacier broke off the mountain, carrying with it a deadly mix of debris. Nine small towns were buried and more than 4,000 people were killed. The second Huascarán avalanche was triggered by the tragic 1970 earthquake, causing a block of glacial ice to split away from the mountain, which in turn buried the provincial capital of Yungay.

Flooding

Flooding is a regular occurrence in Peru, particularly in the highlands and the jungle. Some towns, such as Tingo Maria in the high jungle area of Huánuco, experience significant river flooding most years (caused by excessive rain). The Cusco region has also experience some major floods in recent years. In 2010, mudslides and flood waters covered roads and train tracks, ruined an estimated 2,000 homes, claimed as many as 20 lives and left tourists stranded throughout the area. Another hazardous form of flooding comes from glacial lakes in the Andean highlands. These unstable lakes cause outburst floods, which have claimed thousands of lives during the last 100 years.

Tsunamis

A number of tsunamis have struck the coast of Peru during the last 400 years. These tsunamis are the result of seismic activity associated with the Peru-Chile Trench, located about 100 miles off the Peruvian coast, where the Nazca Plate is being subducted beneath the South American Plate. Details are scarce for many of the oldest recorded tsunamis, but those of 1586, 1604, 1687 and 1746 are believed to have been particularly destructive, leveling entire settlements along the Peruvian coast. The last significant tsunami occurred in 2001 following the 8.4 earthquake in southern Peru. The tsunami took the lives of at least 26 people.

Volcanic Eruptions

Southern Peru is an area of mild volcanic activity. A number of volcanoes, such as Sabancaya and El Misti, are considered potentially hazardous and remain under constant observation. In general, volcanic eruptions do not pose an immediate threat. Historically, however, Peru lays claim to one of the most destructive eruptions on record. In 1600, Huaynaputina erupted violently, killing more than 1,500 Peruvians. The local death toll was nothing compared to the global catastrophe caused by the eruption. Geologists from the University of California believe the vast amount of particulates released into the atmosphere changed the global climate, resulting most notably in the Russian Famine -- an event that killed an estimated two million Russians.

El Niño

El Niño is a complex and still not fully understood temperature anomaly that typically occurs every three to seven years. During an El Niño event, the “physical relationships between wind, ocean currents, oceanic and atmospheric temperature and biosphere break down into destructive patterns” (Earth Observatory; “What is El Niño?”). In Peru, this leads to particularly disruptive and damaging weather patterns. Heavy rains fall in the normally rainless coastal regions, leading to flooding and associated phenomena. At the same time, the highlands can suffer from crippling droughts. The 1997-1998 El Niño -- the worst in recent history -- affected an estimated 600,000 people, including hundreds of fatalities, 40,500 homes damaged or destroyed and the washing away of thousands of miles of roads and bridges.

Disease

Disease is different from other natural hazards in that it is not necessarily related to the physical environment. Human actions, such as urbanization and poor sanitation, also play a large role in the onset of outbreaks or epidemics. Travelers should receive all the necessary vaccinations for Peru before they travel. Some potentially hazardous diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, do not have vaccinations. In these cases, avoiding mosquito bites is the main method of prevention.

References:

  • “Natural Hazards in Peru: Causation and Vulnerability” -- Kenneth R. Young and Blanca León
  • “Peru: Natural Disasters and Their Impact” -- Country Studies (link)
  • “Peru: An Andean Country with Significant Disaster and Emergency Management Challenges” -- Heriberto Urby Jr., David A. McEntire and Ekong J. Peters (link)
  • The Angry Earth: Disaster in Anthropological Perspective -- Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman

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