Shaken, and Probably Stirred: Earthquakes in France

Viaduc de Millau 2

Ethereal but durable: what magnitude of earthquake would the Millau Bridge withstand?

Have you ever been in an earthquake? I have, when we lived in Birmingham, and it was a very odd experience. I must admit that it wasn’t a very big one and there was no danger of the house collapsing, although it did shake a bit. However, I can imagine the panic that a more powerful tremor would cause, not to mention the damage and the aftermath. France is not generally associated with earthquakes, but we do have them. This week, seismic activity in Europe has been unusually evident.

Last week, an earthquake measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale occurred in the Vendée and Deux-Sèvres départements. Fortunately, no one was injured and little damage occurred. People said they heard a booming noise, which is exactly what I experienced during the Birmingham earthquake, and then felt the walls and floor vibrate.

Some parts of France are more prone than others to seismic activity, according to the official map indicating seismic zoning, which shows the likelihood of an earthquake occurring  on a scale of 1 (low risk) to 5 (high risk). I am very pleased to note that Tarn-et-Garonne is in the lowest risk band. I would definitely not want to be in a stone house if an earthquake took place.

Villefranche - Pont des Consuls

Villefranche-de-Rouergue, surrounded by fault lines

Not terribly far from us, however, in Aveyron, the risk increases somewhat. Parts of Aveyron are apparently criss-crossed by fault lines. It’s hard to imagine the geological activity going on under this tranquil, bucolic landscape, but folk not far from Rodez experienced a noticeable quake of 3.9 on the Richter scale in 2014. It appears that mini quakes are happening regularly.

Parts of the Alps and the Pyrénées are classified as Zone 4 on the map and are frequently subject to quakes. The most violent earthquake recorded in France since the 16th century occurred on 11th June 1909 around Lambesc in Provence, when a quake of around 6.2 on the Richter scale took place. Several towns and villages were seriously damaged and 46 people died. To get a sense of its magnitude, the catastrophic 1906 earthquake in San Francisco was around 7.8 on the Richter scale. The Richter Scale is a logarithmic scale to cover the large variation in magnitudes. So, for example, a quake of 5.0 is ten times more powerful than one of 4.0.

Pyrenees Pic du Midi - PhotoXpress_LEGOS

Le Pic du Midi in the Pyrénés, where quakes are not infrequent – PhotoXpress_LEGOS

Powerful after-shocks continued for days afterwards and people slept outside for fear of being buried in their houses. Had the quake taken place a century later, experts estimate that the death toll would have risen tenfold, owing to the greater population density and construction in areas at risk.

Earthquakes can apparently have an effect some distance away in low risk areas. Locally, the Ruisseau de Caudesaygues between Caylus and Espinas was once a hot spring, as its name suggests. Following an earthquake in the Pyrénées many years ago, it is said that the water ran cold, as it still does. There could, of course, be other reasons for this, but people connected the two events at the time.

Although we are somewhat better prepared for natural disasters than we were a century ago and early warning systems are more effective, the power of nature is still awe-inspiring.

The Flood of the Century in Southwest France, 3-4 March 1930
Varen: Haven by the River Aveyron
Villefranche-de-Rouergue: Past Glories

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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21 Responses to Shaken, and Probably Stirred: Earthquakes in France

  1. Me too! I lived in north Lincolnshire and we felt a little shudder and a window cracked. Can’t remember when it was about 2008 probably. The spooky thing was all the dogs in the street set up a concerted howling and it was that that woke us up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s surprising how many people reading this have actually experienced one themselves. Animals appear to be particularly sensitive to them. I believe it’s something to do with inner-ear pressure, but I am no expert.

      Like

  2. Osyth says:

    I’ve been in a house as it was struck by lightning but never experienced an earthquake …. I’m not at all sure that I would want to but viewing the seismic map of France after reading your post, I realise it is most certainly a possibility 😱!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I think it’s a slim possibility (I hope, anyway), but I suppose it’s not surprising if parts of the Alps and the Pyrénées are subject to them from time to time, since they were formed by continental collisions. The chances of a really big one like that in Lambesc in 1909 seem remote, but I suppose one can never discount the possibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Being from California, earthquakes are a fact of life for me. We used to do earthquake drills at school (also duck-and-cover drills in case of nuclear attack!) I felt the one here in 2014 and I have to say it ‘shook’ me up a little! I live directly below a very, very high stone wall that supports the terrace of the village Chateau. If it shook loose, I’d be a goner!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      So you felt the 2014 one? We didn’t here, but then we’re further away from the epicentre. I can imagine that everyone in California must run scared all the time. Like sitting on a timebomb.

      Like

  4. Chris R says:

    Living quite close to our local camp militaire, we often remark that if WWIII broke out we would be the last to know, as it would be drowned out by all the booms and whoomphs of heavy artillery fire we hear when they are having a training day! An earthquake might make its presence felt, but I wouldn’t bet on it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m not aware there have been any perceptible earthquakes in this area, but when they fire at the camp the whole house jumps sometimes. And we are relatively far away.

      Like

  5. I have clear memories of the Birmingham earthquake.
    I was at my friend Pam’s house near Brum ( see my post “my pre- Raphaelite fix)
    As the quake hit, the large, heavy armchair that I was sitting in slid dramatically over the floor, but for Pam it was even more disturbing…she had JUST gone to the bathroom ………..!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was discussing earthquakes with a neighbour a couple of weeks ago and she was unaware that they are a regular thing in the pyrenees and surrounding area. Obviously doesn’t read la depeche. My only experience, thus far, was in the late 80s. It was lunchtime and I was sitting in the staffroom of my school in Surrey. I became aware that I was very gently rising and then settling back down. I decided I must have had a stressful morning with my class! Later I heard on the news there had been a minor earthquake in Wales. No one believed me but I know what I felt. 🙂
    Like you, I am pleased to note we live in the lowest rates area.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some people in our village felt the one in the Vendee/Deux-Sevres last week, just the vibrating of furniture overnight, but I slept through it. The dog however, was very unsettled for about an hour beforehand. This is about the third or fourth quake in our area since we moved here 14 years ago. Some we’ve felt and heard the rumble, others we’ve been oblivious to. I think I remember feeling the Birmingham quake too, in Reading. I awoke in the night as all the wardrobe doors were banging, we lived by the railway and I put it down to a goods train, but once I’d heard the news in the morning, it made more sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It appears that animals are an early warning system for earthquakes. Somehow, they know before we do that something is amiss. They are often more sensitive to barometric and geological changes. The Birmingham one was in 1990, I recall, and the epicentre was around Telford. It’s not uncommon, I believe, but they aren’t often powerful enough to be felt.

      Like

  8. Funnily enough, we had an earthquake here on Saturday afternoon, the first I have ever experienced. I live in north Dorset in England. The epicentre was in South Wales, the strength 4.4 (the strongest in Wales for 100 years), and it lasted about 4 seconds. I live in a wooden house, it creaked and shook but no damage was done. The sound was eerie, a groaning, rumbling noise. My brother who lives in a stone house half a mile away felt nothing! Glad to have experienced it, but wouldn’t want anything stronger!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, I read about the Wales earthquake. I don’t know if it’s on the same fault line as the Vendée, but that might explain all the seismic activity this week. It is a very odd experience and the noise is quite distinctive, apparently. I thought something had gone wrong with the dishwasher at first when I experienced one!

      Like

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