What Travelers Need to Know About Earthquakes in Greece

The town of Kamari viewed from above, Thira, Santorini.
Stuart Wrightson / Getty Images

Greece is one of the world's most seismically active countries, which means earthquakes are a common occurrence. Compared to other more active parts of the world, most Greek earthquakes are relatively mild. Of course, like anywhere else in the world, there is always the potential for more severe seismic activity. Greek builders are aware of this and modern Greek buildings are built to be safe during earthquakes. Similar quakes often strike nearby Turkey and result in much more extensive damage and injuries due to less-strict building codes.

The word for earthquake in Greek, seismós, is easy to remember, since it is the root of the English word "seismic."

Risk of Earthquakes in Greece

Most of Crete, Greece, and the Greek islands are contained in a "box" of fault lines running in different directions. This is in addition to the earthquake potential from the still-lively volcanoes, including the Nysiros Volcano, thought by some experts to be overdue for a major eruption. Although the volcano was monitored by scientists in the '90s during a period of seismic unrest, the last eruption of this volcano occurred in 1888

In the past, major earthquakes have occured in Crete, Rhodes, the Peloponnese Islands, and Karpathos. More recently, major quakes have struck the North Aegan Island of Samothrace in 2014 and Kos in 2017.

Be Prepared

You can sign up for the USGS earthquake notification service, which will send text notifications to your cell phone, but make sure your phone is set up to receive text messages while you are traveling in Greece. Your U.S. cell phone plan may include international texting, but if you need to buy a Greek SIM card during your travels, update your cell phone information with the service.

Before your trip, put together a list of emergency contacts that includes information for the local hospitals and embassies. When traveling with others, there is a chance you could be separated. In times of panic, cell phone towers will be overwhelmed as people try to call into emergency services and check on their loved ones. You may not be able to get in touch with your traveling companions, so designate a primary and secondary meeting place, in case the first meeting place is inaccessible.

Stay Safe and Informed

If you experience an earthquake while traveling in Greece, general earthquake safety tips still apply in the moment that the quake starts. If you're indoors, stay away from the windows and try to find cover near a large piece of furniture, which can protect you from falling objects. Don't run outside, as most earthquake injuries are caused by debris falling off buildings. If you're outside when the shaking begins, don't run inside. Instead, look for the most open space you can find and wait there.

After the earthquake is over, stay informed and updated about tsunami warnings or other potential dangers due to aftershocks. Here are a couple of resources you can use to find the most up-to-date information:

  • The University of Athens offers information on all recent quakes on its website.
  • The Institute of Geodynamics in Greece lists recent earthquake data on its website, which offers both a Greek and English-language version. Information here includes the epicenter, intensity, and graph other information about every temblor that strikes Greece.
  • The United States Geological Survey site offers a list of strong Earthquakes Around the World. Any tremor striking Greece in the last seven days will be listed.
  • The English-language newspaper Kathimerini has an online version, eKathimerini, which is a good source of quake-related information.

Undersea Earthquakes and Tsunamis

Many of the quakes that strike Greece have their epicenters under the sea. While these can shake up surrounding islands, they rarely cause severe damage. The ancient Greeks attributed earthquakes to the God of the Sea, Poseidon, perhaps because so many of them were centered underwater.

After the devastating tsunami which struck the Pacific Ocean in 2004, Greece decided to install a tsunami-detection system of its own. At present, it is still untested but is meant to give warning of any potentially large waves approaching the Greek islands. But fortunately, the type of earthquake which caused 2004's devastating Asian tsunami is not common in the region of Greece.

Historic Earthquakes in Greece

Many earthquakes were recorded in ancient Greece, some of which were severe enough to wipe out cities or cause coastal settlements to virtually disappear. One of the first-ever recorded earthquakes in the history of the world occurred in Sparta in 464 BCE. Since then, a few other notable earthquakes are still remembered in Greece's seismic history.

  • The Athens Earthquake of 1999: One severe quake was the Athens Earthquake of 1999, which struck just outside of Athens itself. The suburbs where it struck were among Athens' poorest, with many old buildings. Over a hundred buildings collapsed, over a hundred people were killed, and many others were injured or left homeless.
  • The Earthquake of 1953: On March 18, 1953, a quake called the Yenice-Gonen Quake struck Turkey and Greece, resulting in the devastation of a number of places and islands. Many of the "typical" Greek buildings we see on the islands today actually date from after this quake, which occurred before modern building codes were in place.
  • The Eruption of Thira on Santorini: Some earthquakes in Greece are caused by volcanoes, including the one which forms the island of Santorini. This is the volcano that exploded in the Bronze Age, sending up a huge cloud of debris and dust, and turning a once-round island into a pale crescent of its former self. Some experts see this disaster as ending the ascendency of the Minoan civilization based on Crete just 70 miles away from Thira. This eruption also caused a tsunami, though how devastating it really was is a matter of debate for both scholars and volcanologists.
  • The Crete Earthquake of 365: This devastating quake with a presumed epicenter off of southern Crete reawakened all of the faults in the area and emitted a huge tsunami that struck Alexandria, Egypt, sending ships two miles inland. It may also have drastically changed the topography of Crete itself. Some debris from this tsunami can still be seen on the beach at Matala, Crete.
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