Nature vs Coffee | How Natural Disasters Affect Coffee Production

Why does it seem like most tropical climates have the most natural disasters? Is it just a feeling or is it true? Since coffee is mostly grown in tropical areas with high elevations, they are not immune to the effects of natural disasters. So how do they cope? How do they prepare? Do they even have the means to prepare? Some of the best places where coffee is grown are also some of the poorest places in the world where natural disasters don’t just affect coffee production but leave devastation in their wake. It honestly makes the existence of coffee somewhat miraculous when you consider what some people have experienced by way of natural disasters. Let’s take a look at some of the natural disasters that have occurred in some of the regions where the best coffee is grown. 

Hurricanes and Other Tropical Storms 

Whether it’s a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone, most of the fiercest weather happens along the equator. Most hurricanes occur in the Pacific Ocean near and around Hawaii. On the Atlantic side, they occur north and south of the Gulf Coast which affects most Central American and some of the Northern parts of South America like Colombia. If we head over to the Indian Ocean and along the coast of Africa, cyclones are the storm of choice for that area. The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal are prime locations for these. Some reach down to South East Asia in areas around Indonesia. Indonesia is sandwiched between cyclones and typhoons. Typhoons most commonly occur north of Indonesia and reach all the way to Japan. So while tropical weather is perfect for growing coffee, it's not without its trouble. 

What is the Difference Between All these Storms? 

Cyclone – a system of winds rotating inward to an area of low atmospheric pressure, with a counterclockwise or clockwise circulation that can reach speeds of 20-30 miles per hour. They often bring heavy rain. At times they are referred to as tropical storms. While not as strong as a hurricane, cyclones can cause catastrophic damage.  

Typhoons – Strong tropical storms that resemble cyclones but generally strike the regions around Indonesia. 

Hurricane – a tropical cyclone with winds that can reach 75 miles per hour or greater. It can be accompanied by rain, thunder, lightning, and at times moves into temperate latitudes. 

Earthquakes

If hurricanes and cyclones aren’t enough, earthquakes can often cause devastation. Regions with the highest possibility of tectonic plates shifting causing earthquakes would be Central America continuing south through Chile. The other regions of the world that experience a lot of earthquakes are Malaysia, Indonesia, most of Southeast Asia reaching all the way to Japan. Again, regions around the equator experience the most earthquakes. The equator seems to be the earthquake’s location of choice. Of course, they happen in other places, but along the equator is where you find the majority of the activity.

Volcanic Eruptions 

Have you heard of the term Ring of Fire? Ring of Fire refers to the region with a large concentration of volcanos. You can almost draw a red circle in the Pacific Ocean as close to the land as possible and you would see the Ring of Fire. The U.S. has seen its share of volcanic eruptions, so the equator doesn’t seem to be as much of a marker as storms and earthquakes. There are several places where the concentration of volcanoes is significant. For example, there’s a large concentration of active volcanoes in Central America and along the Pacific side of South America. If you travel across the world to Africa, there’s a concentration of active volcanoes in the region of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda. In Tanzania alone, there are 23 volcanoes. In Yemen, there are 7 volcanoes, in Ethiopia, there are 77, and in Kenya, there are 31 volcanoes. That is a massive number of volcanoes concentrated in a relatively small region. It’s no wonder that some of the best coffee in the world comes from these locations. While some may not be active, it goes to show that volcanic activity has been prevalent in the past and that they are not free from potential devastation in the future. It means as coffee consumers, the better the processes they can achieve, the better protection they can provide for their farms and workers should a disaster happen. 

It’s no surprise that some of the best coffee in the world comes from these regions and that there would be active volcanoes making the ground fertile while wreaking havoc simultaneously. Isn’t it ironic, that the very thing that provides fertile soil, is the very thing that can also cause devastation of epic proportions? When you think about all the countries we buy coffee from, there isn’t a single one that isn’t in the path of one or more of these natural disasters. Without these forces of nature, growing coffee is hard enough, but the difficulty is compounded when faced with the potential of a natural disaster.

It’s interesting to note that where there are volcanoes indicate a great place for growing coffee because of the fertile soil, but also because it means high altitudes. High altitudes equal great coffee which equals a volatile natural climate. 

Cyclones in Indonesia  

Indonesia has experienced seven major cyclones since 1973 but all but one occurred between 2002 and 2021. While there isn’t a lot of information about how these cyclones affected the coffee industry, it’s not hard to understand that a significant storm would at the very least cause serious setbacks in coffee production. While some regions face earthquakes and volcanoes, the most common force of strong weather in Indonesia is a cyclone.  

Hurricanes in Central America 

Maybe because I’m from Guatemala I know more about the natural disasters that happen there. I wrote a blog about the volcano eruption in Antigua which was devastating to the people there. When a natural disaster hits that area, I’m usually pretty concerned because I still have family living there. Just a few weeks ago there was a strong earthquake in the southern region off the coast of Guatemala on the Pacific side. While it wasn’t near a lot of agriculture, you never know the ripple effect that some of these forces of nature will have. Natural events have a way of affecting water, food, and medical supplies that may cause an adverse effect in other regions.

Hurricane Mitch  

The fury of Hurricane Mitch would make landfall in Honduras as a category 5 hurricane on October 26, 1998. It caused thousands of deaths across Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Disease and devastation would follow and it would take years to recover from all the devastation. While this hurricane happened in 1998 before the boom of the specialty coffee industry, I point it out because of the level of devastation it caused. 

I live in suburban Arizona where the climate around me is pretty steady. It’s hot and sunny most of the year but also pretty easy to go into an air-conditioned room. I have gained a new appreciation for people whose livelihood is tied up in agriculture and how greatly it can be affected by forces of nature that are out of our control.