Many describe Latvia as rather safe country. We have no volcanos, earthquakes and severe tropical climate. However, nature caused calamities on Latvian soil has always occurred. Storms, floods and severe winters have caused damage and the loss of human lives. And as the climate changes Latvia is more affected by storms and unusual climate conditions. On the time of this writing the storm Xaver has ravaged many parts of Europe, but Latvia seems to have avoided the worst part. This article is a short collection of the major natural disasters that had taken place in Latvia.
The strongest ever known registered winds reached Latvia on October 18 1967. The port city of Liepāja was hit 48 m/s strong winds. It was October 17-18 when the most powerful autumn season reached the Baltic region. October-November is usual time for cyclones that forms over the Northern Sea and then reaches the Baltic Sea in weaker manner. But, on this time it was called the storm of the millennium. The storm was so powerful because it formed over Denmark from two cyclones at the speed of 30 m/s and the gust at Liepāja was 48 m/s. Storm moved over Courland, from Aizpute to Saldus, and then to Jēkabpils where it weakened. On its way the storm did enormous damage to Latvian forests, bringing down about 12 million cubic-meters of trees. Riga was barely affected with just 20 m/s strong wind. To clean out the forests more than 30 million m³ of wood had to be removed. With all the native Latvian woodworkers available this would take for 10 years. So large numbers of woodworkers were or so-called black brigades were called from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Many of them stayed in Latvia for the living.
After the storm of such power, most considered that the storm of such power may occur again in some 300 or even 800 years. However, it just took some 2 years and 14 days to similar superstorm to hit Latvia. On November 2 1969 a cyclone formed over Scotland and moved towards Scandinavia en route to Tallinn – Novgorod. A wind of 35 m/s with the highest extent in Daugavpils with 44 m/s. In Riga 40 m/s. was registered. After that the storm entered second cycle on November 3 with lesser power of 34 m/s. Daugavpils, Saldus and Skulte. The storm became the most strongest within the Gulf of Riga dragging a large amount of water. The water level reached 2,14 m. within Daugavgrīva. Flooding took place, Soviet armored transporter was evacuating people from flooded Vējzaķu island and knocked over by the wind killing the driver and five civilians. Also three more people within Riga perished from the falling objects taken down from buildings by the wind. Great damage was done to the beach of Jūrmala completely devastating the beach buildings. A capes in Jūrmala were destroyed and woods brought down. A coast of Gulf of Riga had to be strengthened to withstood further storm attacks. Forests were mostly damaged in Northern Courland and Vidzeme coastal areas. The storm made more damage than the first storm in terms of human lives and restoration expenses.
Many cyclones reached Latvia after that, but most were less powerful. On 1978 winds reached 32 m/s. On 1993 35 m/s. were reached. But, then came the January 8-9 of 2005 when cyclone “Ervin” became the strongest storm in 35 years. The highest point was 40 m/s. The record was reached at the Ventspils harbor, in Liepāja 36 m/s. At Riga 3o m/s. The Grobiņa wind power station even managed to register 51 m/s. Emerged on the skies of United Kingdom the storm became powerful over the Gulf of Bothnia. In its center the pressure reached minimum — 721,9 mm/Hg. As Latvia was in the southern side of the cyclone – the strongest winds took place there. The trouble started January 8 on 16:00 at the western shores. Wind begun at 20 m/s and on 22:00 started to become even stronger. On 2:00 -3:00 wind reached the maximum point. Wind continued until the nightfall of January 9. The water level in Riga reached 213 cm just 16 cm bellow the 1969 record.
Some parts of Riga were flooded. Bolderāja was evacuated. Large parts of Courland was left without electricity. Capes were fully or almost damaged. Many hydrotechnical defense structures were damaged. Roads were cut off including the Via Baltica highway to Tallinn. Coastal damage and erosion and with the length of 2000 km 8—15 ha. of land was taken by the sea. On October 28-29 2013 storm Christian reached Latvia, knocking out electricity in the city of Ventspils.
Tornado is a rare sighting in Latvia. In recent years the sea tornadoes have been observed at the Latvian beaches. However, at the summer seasons the lighting storms can get violent and form a tornado. Such occurrences took place on 1946 August 20 at Skulte, on 1967 in Ludza district, on July 10 near Jēkabpils. On 1995 July 22 the baroque castle of Rundāle was hit by a tornado that tore off 75 m² of the castle roof, damaging also the interior. Usually the victims of such tornadoes are farms and forests. They are usually weak and short-lived. However, on July 7 1986 in Vidzeme region near the town of Ērgļi on 14:00 the land was surrounded by a haze. It got more darker, as the lightning and wind broke the trees. Then on 14:40 a dark tornado came down from the sky and made his away to village of Ranka within two hours in route of 50 km. Tornado overpassed the lake of Jumurda sucking all the fishes and dropping then off far from the lake. 10 country farms were damaged one was destroyed completely. After the tornado was over a 15-20 min rain shower and hail followed.
The flooding that happened in coastal areas of Riga was caused by severe storms. However, in past the center of Riga was almost yearly endangered by the moving ice. As the spring appeared the ice started to melt and move to the sea. The depth of river Daugava before the building of the port was just 2-3 meters. Large ice jams and floods were usually bellow the borders of Riga. Riga for many centuries were defended from floods by the heavy fortifications. However, there were people living outside walls and on the islands. They were affected by the flooding. Large floods with loss of life’s took place on 1744, 1771 and 1807. On 1877 the floods ruined the railway embankment and flooded large areas from Babīte to Spilve. On 1917 after heavy winter the ice jam occurred within both sides of island Zaķusala. The riverside was flooded within the Moscow district. Houses and trees were destroyed. Riga was flooded again on 1922, 1924 and on 1929.
The summer of 1928 was excessively humid. The rainfall limit was over 80% leaving the half of country farms in waste. The flooding caused by rainfalls destroyed the newly built bridge in Bauska over river Mēmele. The raining was not over until September damaging the harvest production. Latvian farmers learned their lesson and improved the melioration and work mechanization. Soon Latvia became a crop exporter, rather than importer.
However, the rainy summer was followed by severe winter. Whole Gulf of Riga was covered by ice. On April 1929 a storm broke the ice and brought the blocks of ice, jamming the entry of Daugava in to the sea. Icebreakers started to brake the ice along with powerful “Krišijānis Valdemārs”. But, as the ice moved along Riga and became stuck near Daugavgrīva the flooding was imminent. From the islands and low coastal areas people were evacuated. All supplies from Riga export port was taken away to safer place. However, the strong winds pushed more ice and the floods started. Islands, port areas, the Spilve airfield the Bolderāja highway was underwater. Water continued to rise and flooded the islands of Kundziņsala, Zaķusala and Klīversala. On April 23 the highest point was reached 2,8 m above normal level. Ganību dambis, Akmeņu street, Ranķu dambis was flooded. Cars and boats were together. During the next days the wind changed its direction and moved the ice away from the shore. As the entry of Daugava was clear from ice the water moved away.
The floods on 1924 destroyed the Lübeck wooden bridge, built by Germans on 1917. It was located from Grēcenieki street to Šoneri street at Klīversala. As it was built for military purposes it was built with rush, the ice breakers were placed in wrong angle in front of stream. The bridge was left intact during the War for Freedom, but the floods of 1924 was crucial for the German army bridge. The ice jam was located between Maruška and Ikšķile. On April 5 this almost 10 km long ice block was blown up by Latvian engineers with four large mines. The explosion caused a huge gust of water and ice heading towards Riga. Four small steamers were dropping ice between the old Iron bridge and the Lübeck bridge and were caught by surprise. Three ships managed to escape, while “Zibens” (lightning) was caught by the strong wave and capsized many times. The wave in fast speed dragged the ship under the Lübeck bridge, knocking off its chimney, captains lodge and the dock surroundings. The steerman managed to hang on the bridge handrails and climbed up the bridge. Other crew members jumped on the ice and were rescued. But, the bridge itself was cut in half by ice blocks. Also the old Iron Bridge was damaged. Pārdaugava was left without electricity, trams stopped and phone cables were cut off.
Riga was no longer affected by the ice jams after the Hydroelectric dam was built near Aizkraukle. However, now the ice became stuck within this dam and now the cities of Pļaviņas and Jēkabpils became endangered by the floods. On 1981 the third of the city of Jēkabils was flooded. 65 streets, 650 buildings were underwater. 45 buildings were needed to be demolished. Some 800 people were evacuated. After that the city authorities of Jēkabpils have built many hydrological defense structures and the floods of such extent have not occurred ever again. However, the town of Pļaviņas are affected by ice jams every year. This year the floods again made damage to the town. There were occurrences when the town hospital was flooded.
Last two years the town of Ogre above the Pļaviņu hydro dam has become severely affected by the ice jams on the local Ogre river that enters the Daugava. As often explained the reason for the flooding is privately built hydro-electric dam. After the regaining the independence, many small rivers were used to be built private hydro-electric dams. As result more and more rivers are affected by the spring floods. The Lielupe river has also flooded many times affecting the city of Jelgava.
The Autumn and winter of 2010 was very light. November and December was mostly warm in contrast to other years. Snow only appeared on Christmas night. But, on December 24-26 in minus temperatures a rain started to fall accompanied with snow. The snowing surface was cowered by frozen snow crust. Trees covered by heavy burden of snow fell on power lines leaving many people without electricity during the Christmas holidays. Restoration works took many weeks involving foreign support. The Freezing rain has become a problem ever since.
Latvia is far from seismic fault lines and is not affected by strong earthquakes. However, the tectonic seam within Poland can cause a earthquakes that may cause a small damage. On 1616 a 5-6 EMS -98 scale earthquake shacked Bauska and areas in Courland. On 1821 the town of Koknese was woken up by 5,5 scale earthquake. Riga was affected by earthquakes on 1853 and 1854 with roaring noise and shaking ground. The earthquake of 1857 that happened in the Strait of Irbe managed to bring down old buildings and roofs. The 2004 Kaliningrad earthquake was so strong it was felt in whole Latvia. Last small earthquake was recorded near Salacgrīva on 2011.
The extent of natural disasters on Latvian soil are nothing in comparison with natural calamities in other parts of the world. However, the human caused disasters in Latvia also were many and took the life’s of many. A separate story is needed to tell about them.
Grūtups, Gaitis. Dabas Mātes Untumi Latvijā. (2001) Dabas Stihijas. Rīga. Zvaigzne. ABC.
Caune, Andris. (1998) Rīgas Pārdaugava pirms 100 gadiem. Rīga. “Zinātne.”