Tsunami, an originally Japanese word, has become a household name even in Malta. Few Maltese are however familiar with the Maltese word milghuba that refers to a specific marine disturbance with effects similar to those of a tsunami.
Even Professor Guzè Aquilina, in his monumental dictionary, gives no Maltese version of the word tsunami; while he identifies milghuba with a whirlpool.
Tsunami or milghuba events are recorded in the Maltese Islands. The first record I am aware of is the manuscript by G.P. Agius de Soldanis, Gozo Antico e Moderno, which recounts that during the 1693 earthquake "the sea at Xlendi receded instantly and returned back with great fury like a tidal wave, and with a thundering sound".
Another tsunami-like event was recorded on December 28, 1908. This was generated by a massive earthquake in the Messina Straits which in turn generated a tidal wave that caused serious damage to the eastern coast of Sicily. The waves of this tsunami reached the Maltese shores almost an hour later, causing flooding in Msida and Marsaxlokk, while unusually high sea levels in Grand Harbour were also recorded. A number of fishing boats were damaged or destroyed, but no deaths were recorded.
Tsunami-like events have also been recorded in relatively recent times.
An event which occurred on July 9, 1973 was reported in the Times of Malta accompanied by a picture of the after-effects. The newspaper reported that during the night fishermen and residents in Salina Bay experienced a marine disturbance that old fishermen called il-milghuba.
The disturbance was described to start with a sudden recession of the sea lowering the depth by about two feet, followed a short while later by a massive wave that caused the sea level to rise a couple of feet above the normal level before settling to its original state.
The event was accompanied by a rumbling noise. Boats anchored in shallow water were originally noted to rest on the seabed. A normally dry stretch of land remained covered in seawater for a few days. Mount Etna was also reported to have been very active a few days earlier. Fishermen reported a similar disturbance a few years earlier.
Another tsunami-like event, blamed on the initiation of the Msida anti-flooding project, was reported in The Times on March 26, 1983. On this occasion, the sea in the bay seemed to rise, in spite of calm waters, and flooded the road in front of the Msida parish church. Earthquakes of a magnitude of 5.3 and 6.4 on the Richter scale were reported to have rocked Western Greece and the Ionian Islands.
Yes, tsunamis do occur in the Mediterranean, and the Maltese Islands, ringed as they are by a series of volcanoes, have been influenced, albeit mildly, by this marine event. One hopes that the Civil Protection Unit is well trained and equipped to deal with such an emergency and that earthquake monitoring centres in the Mediterranean will alert the population to enable it to proceed to high ground in such an event.
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