Mother Nature doesn’t really care if her unpredictability irritates you.
Take volcanoes. In 2002, ten of the world’s major active ones erupted, including Italy’s Etna and Stromboli. In 2003, Mama cut eruptions to six, four of which were in Indonesia. Would she continue the trend? Well, no. In 2004, 26 major volcanoes erupted worldwide in places as far flung as Guatemala, Japan, Mexico, Alaska and, once again, Indonesia.
It gets more unpredictable, of course. Volcanic eruptions sometimes kill, force evacuations, or trigger earthquakes, and sometimes they don’t. Locals live with this uncertainty and often not by choice. As travelers we often can choose, and while we can’t always predict what nature has in store, some destinations harbor more natural dangers than others.
Many parts of Indonesia are “at high risk for natural disasters due to its geographic location and topography,” notes the U.S. Department of State. A 7.4-magnitude earthquake in Padang in September 2009 killed 3,000 Indonesians and other major quakes have killed thousands more. That doesn’t mean this Southeast Asia country is perpetually unstable, but if you’re heading there the State Department urges you to research local conditions ahead of time, travel with a guide, and know that emergency services are rudimentary at best in highly-populated areas and non-existent in more remote ones.
Use a lot of common sense when swimming here. Every year several U.S. swimmers die in the unstable seasonal undercurrents in Indonesia’s coastal waters and both surfers and divers need to know that local fisherman sometimes engage in the illegal practice of catching fish with explosives. Also, hikers in Papua’s mountains are urged to book their hike through a reputable company, as in the past “local tour operators have abandoned climbers after they reached the summit,” reports the State Department.
Part of the British West Indies, Montserrat is a volcanic island that wants to have it both ways with its Soufriere Volcano: When it erupted in January 2009, residents had to be evacuated and the Montserrat Government has historically warned locals and visitors that they need to be prepared to quit the volcano’s vicinity on short notice. And because Soufriere “is still active and dangerous, access to the southern part of the island is restricted,” says the State Department. Still, the island’s tourist board is bullish about having visitors monitor the volcano from several locations, most logically the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.
While poor judgment often plays a part in drowning and water sport-related deaths, bear in mind that Mexico’s safety and supervision standards may not be on a par with those in the United States. Drain systems in Mexico swimming pools don’t comply with U.S. safety standards, for instance. Also, “strong undertow and rough surf are common along beaches throughout Mexico, especially on the Pacific coast, and drownings have occurred when swimmers have been overwhelmed by conditions,” according to a State Department memo on spring break in Mexico, which also advises against swimming where black or red flags are planted or diving in unfamiliar waters, as “hidden rocks or shallow depths can cause serious injury or death.”
Specific danger zones for travelers include Veracruz’s Pico de Orizaba, a stratovolcano whose eruptions over the centuries have turned it into Mexico’s highest mountain. Summer droughts have transformed the mountain’s Jamapa Glacier from a snowy climbing region into a “high-speed ice chute,” the State Department says, noting that “at least 17 climbers have died on the mountain and 39 have been injured in recent years, including U.S. citizens.” Also off limits is the 4 ½-mile radius around the active Colima Volcano, which erupted a few times in 2005.
It’s a leisure destination with resorts, beaches, and sailing, but this 80-island member of the British Commonwealth, about 1,300 mi northeast of Sydney, Australia, is something of a triple threat. Vanuatu’s in an active seismic zone, so it’s prone to earthquakes as well as volcanic eruptions - the risk level of Vanuatu’s active volcanoes can change daily, the State Department says. In terms of its climate the island chain is best known for its cyclones, hurricane-like storms in season here from November to April. Vanuatu’s key tourist presence is immediately outside the capital of Port Vila on the island of Efate, and Vanuatu hoteliers reportedly are diligent about communicating cyclone alerts to travelers.
Of course, when it comes down to it, nowhere on the planet is truly safe. A perfect example of this can be found in Arizona, which is known for its consistently arid climate, but where snow and rain storms in the northeastern part of the state were so severe in late January that President Obama declared a state of emergency for the area. Members of the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation as well as their livestock were stranded by the deep snow and mud. Cows were reportedly seen standing dead in the snow in some areas. Citizens needing medical care were airlifted out and likewise, supplies were being airlifted in, with more than 1,500 people needing assistance. As of this writing emergency repairs had shut down part of Arizona 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff. FEMA, who coordinated rescue and relief efforts on the ground, dispensed safety advice good to remember during any cold climate travel, including watching for signs of frostbite – “loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes, and the tip of the nose” – as well as signs of hypothermia, which include, “uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness, and apparent exhaustion.”