Ruins of this Powerful and Glorious City [Lisbon earthquake 1755], David Herrliberger, National Library of Spain, CC BY-NC-SA

Natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis occur quickly and without warning, wreaking destruction and devastation. In the past, people often attributed these cataclysmic events to a higher power who was punishing humankind for its misdemeanours - take, for example, the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah

Today, advances in science and technology help us manage the impact of natural disasters. Technology can give us early warnings so that people can be evacuated from at-risk areas. It enables the coordination of aid and rescue missions, and informs restoration and rebuilding operations. Here again, just as in the face of conflict and war, we see humanity’s resilience tested.

Lisbon - the earthquake of 1755

The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 was one of the most catastrophic events in European history. It heavily damaged the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula and the north-west of Africa.

In Lisbon, the earthquake knocked many candles over, causing fires to break out across the city. Furthermore, forty minutes after the shock, a tsunami hit the city. The earthquake almost totally destroyed Lisbon and surrounding areas. The death toll in Lisbon alone was estimated to be up to 100,000 people, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in European recorded history.

The Earthquake of 1755, painted from 1756 to 1792, João Glama Ströberle, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Mark
The Earthquake of 1755, painted from 1756 to 1792, João Glama Ströberle, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain Mark

Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, including royal palaces and libraries. The Lisbon opera house (the ‘Ópera do Tejo’), which had opened just six months before, burned to the ground. Relief and reconstruction work began swiftly, though sometimes using harsh measures. The army locked down the city to keep looters out but also kept the population in, stopping them from leaving to find safety elsewhere.

The king and the prime minister of Portugal, who both escaped the disaster unharmed, wanted to rebuild the city. They chose to raze the Baixa Quarter, the heart of the old city, in order to make a new city of large squares and broad avenues. Lisbon's reconstruction gave us Europe’s first earthquake-resistant buildings; the ‘Pombaline’ were named after one of the main architects of the reconstruction, the Marquês de Pombal.

York Minster - recovering from lightning strike

The images of Notre-Dame burning this year may have reminded the people of York what happened to their cathedral 35 years ago. York Minster is the largest gothic cathedral in Great Britain, built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Over the centuries, it has been damaged by fire several times and, on 9 July 1984, lightning struck the cathedral roof and flames soon engulfed the massive structure. Hundreds of firefighters battled through the night to contain the fire while York Minster's staff and clergy hurried to save historical objects from the building.

Moonlight view of York Minster, late 19th century, Clarkson Stanfield, University of Edinburgh, Public Domain Mark
Moonlight view of York Minster, late 19th century, Clarkson Stanfield, University of Edinburgh, Public Domain Mark

The fire destroyed the roof of the Minster's South Transept and its famous rose window. The glass was shattered by the heat but the lead held it together, allowing it to be taken down and painstakingly restored using traditional materials.

In 1988 the immediate repairs were finished but the Minster’s restoration and conservation work are never-ending. Recently, a new type of UV-resistant glazing was installed to protect the 600-year-old stained glass, especially in the Great East Window. Visit York Minster’s website to find out more.

Assisi and the Basilica of Saint Francis - the aftershock of an earthquake

The famous pilgrimage site of Assisi in central Italy has suffered from earthquakes throughout its history, but few have caused such damage as the one in September 1997. The entire town was affected by the earthquake and it was during the aftershocks that the central vault of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi collapsed.

Vault with frescoes, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Unknown photographer, University of Bologna, CC BY-ND
Vault with frescoes, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Unknown photographer, University of Bologna, CC BY-ND

The nature-loving Saint Francis lived in Assisi all his life and founded the Franciscan order. He was to become the patron saint for animals and the natural environment and shares honours with Catherine of Siena as the patron of Italy.

The Basilica comprises two churches in early Gothic style which are decorated with frescoes by numerous late medieval painters from the Roman and Tuscan schools, and include works by notable Italian artists such as the innovator Giotto

The whole complex was severely damaged but urgent measures like emergency stabilisation of the structure saved it. And in just two years, the Basilica reopened.

Cloister and upper church of San Francesco, Assisi, 1967, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA
Cloister and upper church of San Francesco, Assisi, 1967, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA

The region still suffers from recurring earthquakes that cause heavy damage and loss of life. The authorities and the local population have the difficult task of rebuilding these often rural areas while preserving their cultural heritage.

Venice - the eternal threat of acqua alta

Venice, 1950-1960, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA
Venice, 1950-1960, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA

As one of the most beloved cities on earth, Venice faces many challenges. Besides the dangers posed by rampant tourism and pollution, the city has to cope with flooding every year, ‘acqua alta’ in an exceptional tidal peak that occurs in the northern Adriatic Sea. The first documented description of acqua alta in Venice was recorded in the year 782 CE and subsequent threats of these high tides are only increasing due to climate change.

Venice, 1950-1960, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA
Venice, 1950-1960, Paolo Monti, Fondazione Biblioteca Europea di Informazione e Cultura (BEIC), CC BY-SA

The worst acqua alta to hit Venice occurred in 1966, when water reached a height of 194cm above sea-level. The flood caused enormous damage and left thousands of residents homeless. It highlighted the need for restoration and protection work to save Venice from these exceptional high tides.

The area of the Arsenal where maintenance of Mose and management of the lagoon system will be located, 2013, Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia - Consorzio Venezia Nuova, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
The area of the Arsenal where maintenance of Mose and management of the lagoon system will be located, 2013, Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia - Consorzio Venezia Nuova, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Since then, measures have been taken to mitigate the flood risk. The MOSE Project will see mobile gates and reinforcements close the Venice lagoon during tide peaks, stopping the water from rising and threatening the city. MOSE is expected to be completed and functional operation by 2022.