Croatia is a picturesque Balkan nation, straddling western and southeast Europe and scoring the perfect balance between the two in culture, cuisine, and weather. With 20 million tourists visiting the country every year, natural disasters probably aren’t the first thing to come to mind when you picture the sparkling seas and sun-soaked islands but are earthquakes common in Croatia?
Bordered by Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Hungary, and Bosnia, and sharing a maritime border with Italy in the Adriatic Sea, Croatia sits at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. But Croatia also lies across a major fault line on the southern margin of the Eurasian plate, extending from Karlovac in the north to Split on the southern coast. This means earthquakes in Croatia are frequent, but only a few cause heavy damage.
Our guide looks at the likelihood of an earthquake happening in Croatia and what you should do if you’re there when one strikes. Let’s get into it.
Are earthquakes common in Croatia?
Croatia is best known for its pebbled beaches, medieval old towns, roaring nightlife, and picturesque islands, complete with rolling vineyards and lavender fields. You probably don’t think of extreme weather and natural disasters when conjuring images of Croatia’s turquoise waters lapping its pristine shores, but earthquakes are more common here than you might think and you should know a bit about them before you visit.
Earthquakes aren’t usually triggered by anything controllable above ground. The tectonic plates that make up the earth’s surface, below land and sea, are constantly moving, but so slowly that we can’t feel it. However, the edges of these plates can get stuck due to friction and when the pressure overcomes this friction, energy is released in waves that travel through the earth’s crust and cause the shaking that we know as earthquakes.
The earth’s crust consists of around 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates, but seven major ones in Africa, Antarctica, Eurasia, Indo-Australia, North America, the Pacific, and South America. There are hundreds of areas of tectonic tension, but just a few large fault zones that stretch 100s of kilometers. This is where most seismic activity occurs.
Croatia sits on the Eurasian plate’s southern margin, a highly fractured and faulted tension zone that is being lifted, squeezed, and rotated all the time due to pressure from the African Plate which collides with it. Croatia’s major fault line extends from northern Croatia and the border with Slovenia to all the glitzy resorts on the Dalmatian coast.
Earthquakes are surprisingly common in Croatia, and they’ve seemed to become more of a regular occurrence over the centuries. Many tremors aren’t felt or cause very little damage, but some can cause widespread destruction and even result in a loss of life.
There have been 18 serious earthquakes since 1900, measuring magnitude 6.0 or above on the Richter scale, and 17 people have died as a direct result of earthquakes in Croatia since 1950. Seismic activity was at an all-time high in 2020, with two earthquakes of magnitude 5.5 and 6.4 respectively causing multiple deaths in Croatia.
When was the last earthquake in Croatia?
Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Romania, and the Balkans – Croatia included – experience the most earthquakes in all of Europe. There are over 1,200 active faults in the continent, and Croatia is in reach of some of the most volatile.
The last earthquake in this region was on 18 September 2022 with its epicenter being in Gjirokaster, Albania. The quake measure 4.5 on the Richter scale and was felt in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Croatia, among other nations. However, the last earthquake with its actual epicenter in Croatia, occurred in 2021 on 6 October, in Trilj. The 4.9 magnitude quake cracked walls, caused landslides, and damaged roads, but, thankfully, there were no fatalities.
June 2021 also saw a magnitude 4.7 earthquake, originating in Šibenik, the historic city, and gateway to the Kornati Islands where thousands of tourists flock every year to enjoy their summer holidays. The tremor was felt throughout Dalmatia, very early in the morning. It was short but strong and caused little damage with no loss of life.
Croatia’s most significant earthquake in modern history occurred as recently as 2020, achieving the highest measure on the Richter scale for a Croatian earthquake since 1898. It took place on 29 December around midday near Pertinja in central Croatia and was succeeded by numerous aftershocks. It reach 6.4 on the Richter scale and caused seven deaths and 26 injuries, six of which were serious. Many buildings in Petrinja were destroyed, and the quake was felt as far away as Italy, Hungary, and Slovakia.
The Petrinkja earthquake, along with a 5.5 magnitude earthquake that occurred in Zagreb in March 2020, caused a combined total of 17 billion EUR in damage. Still, these weren’t Croatia’s most deadly tremors. Although measuring 0.2 less than the Petrinkja earthquake on the Richter scale, a 1942 earthquake in Imotski caused the highest loss of life killing more than 20 people and injuring countless others.
Croatia also faces just as much risk from earthquakes coming from nearby as it does from ones with epicenters in Croatia. The 1979 Montenegro earthquake reached 7.0 on the Richter scale, with 90 aftershocks exceeding magnitude 4.0. Over 1,000 buildings were damaged in Dubrovnik alone, including the old city walls. The total damage amounted to around 450.5 million EUR in the Game of Thrones city itself. 101 people lost their lives in Montenegro, and 35 in Albania, but shockingly, there were no fatalities in Croatia.
What is the likelihood of a tsunami in Croatia?
The movement of the earth’s tectonic plates can have a lot of other secondary effects, not just causing earthquakes but volcanic eruptions and tsunamis too. Tsunamis are freak waves generated when the seafloor deforms and displaces water, usually at the fault of earthquakes at shallow subduction zones, but also as a result of underwater volcanic eruptions and landslides, and more rarely, humongous impacts in the ocean, like a meteor strike.
When underwater earthquakes occur, especially in the vicinity of inhabited land, there is always the risk of a tsunami. However, it usually takes a magnitude 7.5 and above earthquake to produce destructive waves, of which Croatia has experienced none.
Tsunamis are much rarer than earthquakes, happening one or two times a year on average, somewhere in the world. More than 80 percent of the world’s tsunamis happen in the Pacific Ocean, along its Ring of Fire subduction zones – where 75 percent of the world’s volcanoes are located. However, Europe isn’t completely immune to freak waves.
When a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck off Turkey’s coast on 30th October 2020, a 2.2 meter-high tsunami hit the Aegean coast, as well as a number of islands including Ikaria, Chios, Samos, and Kos in Greece. Coastal settlements experienced some damage, but luckily no one was injured. Had it happened in the high season months, it could have been a different story for unsuspecting sea-swimmers. The earthquake itself caused more destruction, damaging some buildings in Izmir City on the Turkish mainland.
Earthquakes often cause damage in Croatia, but the tsunami risk is very low. The coast has experienced minor tsunamis, in the way of raised sea levels and bigger waves, but many of these have been deemed meteo-tsunamis – tsunamis caused by weather and atmospheric conditions, rather than earthquakes. Modern Croatia has seen no destructive tsunamis as a result of earthquakes, so there’s no reason for tsunamis to be something of concern for your next trip to Croatia.
Unlike earthquakes, tsunamis can be predicted, usually because they follow a seismic event. So keep an ear out for weather updates and warnings, especially if you experience a tremor while on the coast.
What should you do in the case of an earthquake in Croatia?
Earthquakes used to cause a lot more damage and loss of life in Croatia when the government was less prepared and not focused on guiding the population in the appropriate protocol. While little can be done to protect some of Croatia’s magnificent ancient sites that are still vulnerable to strong tremors, modern buildings are now built with thinner walls and steel bars to help reduce movement but also facilitate slight flexibility without the structure coming tumbling down.
Flexible foundations, which lift the building above the earth in a method called “base isolation”, can also prevent damage to buildings in Croatia. Shutters on windows stop falling glass and some more contemporary builds might use seismic glass, which can withstand quakes thanks to a plastic interlayer that holds glass fragments should the glass crack.
Should an earthquake occur when you’re in Croatia, remember the universal earthquake response protocol of “drop, cover, hold on”. This says you should stay inside where you are, get under heavy furniture like a table, desk, or bed, preferably away from glass, and hold onto the object so that you stay covered and aren’t hit by falling objects.
Once the tremor has finished, put on shoes, go outside, and get as far away from nearby buildings as you can. You should avoid open flames – that means not using a lighter or lighting a match until emergency services have finished inspections – especially in affected buildings because earthquakes can damage gas lines.
Although Croatia doesn’t face a huge risk of tsunamis, you could stay away from the beach if you are on the coast following an earthquake. Be prepared for aftershocks within the minutes, hours, days, and even weeks after a quake. These shocks can cause equally serious damage and falling debris could cause injury. Drive carefully after an earthquake and plan alternative routes, you should expect traffic lights to be down and structural damage to roads making it unsafe to travel.
Is Hvar safe from a tsunami?
Although earthquakes on the Dalmatian Coast are frequent and can cause serious damage, tsunamis as a result of them are very rare in Hvar, and Croatia in general. Meteotsunamis have occurred in Dalmatia – this is when freak weather can cause big waves or rises in sea levels, but an underwater earthquake has never triggered a tsunami in Hvar.
Do earthquakes happen in Zagreb?
Like the rest of Croatia, Zagreb is endangered by earthquakes. A 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck as recently as 2020, just 30 miles from the capital, while a 5.5 magnitude quake hit just a few months before, originating from Zagreb itself and causing widespread damage. Eight people were killed in Croatia by earthquakes in and around the capital in 2020 and they’re a real risk in Zagreb so be sure to familiarize yourself with the emergency protocol before visiting. Earthquakes are unpredictable and can happen at any time of year.