Weather disasters leap 500 percent in 50 years

The level of natural disasters across the world has increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years.

Data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed a disaster related to a weather, climate or water hazard occurred every day on average over the past five decades, killing 115 people and causing US$ 202 million in losses daily.

While the number of disasters has increased, driven by climate change, thanks to improved early warnings and disaster management, the number of deaths decreased almost three-fold.

According to the WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970 – 2019), there were more than 11 000 reported disasters attributed to these hazards globally, with just over 2 million deaths and US$ 3.64 trillion in losses.

The report is the most comprehensive review of mortality and economic losses from weather, water and climate extremes to date. It assesses the entire 50-year period as well as by individual decade.

“The number of weather, climate and water extremes are increasing and will become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. “That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America. We have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms.

“Economic losses are mounting as exposure increases. But, behind the stark statistics, lies a message of hope. Improved multi-hazard early warning systems have led to a significant reduction in mortality. Quite simply, we are better than ever before at saving lives.”

From 1970 to 2019, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50% of all disasters, 45% of all reported deaths and 74% of all reported economic losses.

More than 91% of these deaths occurred in developing countries.

Of the top 10 disasters, the hazards that led to the largest human losses during the period have been droughts (650,000 deaths), storms (577,232 deaths), floods (58,700 deaths) and extreme temperature (55,736 deaths).

Deaths decreased almost threefold from 1970 to 2019 said the WMO. Death tolls fell from over 50 000 deaths in the 1970s to less than 20 000 in the 2010s. The 1970s and 1980s reported an average of 170 related deaths per day. In the 1990s, that average fell by one third to 90 related deaths per day, then continued to fall in the 2010s to 40 related deaths per day.

With regard to economic losses, the top 10 events include storms ($521 billion) and floods ($115 billion).

“During the 50-year period, $202 million dollars in damage occurred on average every day,” said the WMO. “Economic losses have increased sevenfold from the 1970s to the 2010s. The reported losses from 2010–2019 ($383 million per day on average over the decade) were seven times the amount reported from 1970–1979 ($49 million). Storms were the most prevalent cause of damage, resulting in the largest economic losses around the globe. It is the sole hazard for which the attributed portion is continually increasing.”

Three of the costliest 10 disasters occurred in 2017: Hurricanes Harvey ($96.9 billion), Maria ($69.4 billion) and Irma ($58.2 billion).  These three hurricanes alone accounted for 35% of the total economic losses of the top 10 disasters around the world from 1970 to 2019.

The organisation said much more remains to be done. Only half of the 193 members of WMO have multi-hazard early warning systems and there are severe gaps in weather and hydrological observing networks in Africa, some parts of Latin America and in Pacific and Caribbean island states.

WMO is strengthening collaboration with its partners to address risks associated with weather, climate and water extremes. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which moves into WMO headquarters in Geneva on 1 September, and the World Health Organization contributed to the WMO Atlas.

“More lives are being saved thanks to early warning systems but it is also true that the number of people exposed to disaster risk is increasing due to population growth in hazard-exposed areas and the growing intensity and frequency of weather events.  More international cooperation is needed to tackle the chronic problem of huge numbers of people being displaced each year by floods, storms and drought. We need greater investment in comprehensive disaster risk management ensuring that climate change adaptation is integrated in national and local disaster risk reduction strategies,” said Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of UNDRR.

“The overlap of the COVID-19 pandemic with many other natural and manmade hazards, especially extreme weather events during the last 18 months demonstrates the need for greater investment in disaster risk reduction and a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk management and early warning systems to reduce risks and strengthen preparedness for multiple disaster scenarios,” she added.

Of the top 10 disasters, the hazards that led to the largest human losses during the period have been droughts (650,000 deaths), storms (577,232 deaths), floods (58,700 deaths) and extreme temperature (55,736 deaths).

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