Deadly Natural Disasters Have Increased Five-Fold Over 50 Years Due to Climate Change

Though the number of disasters rose, officials said the death toll decreased nearly threefold from 1970 to 2019, due to improved early warnings and disaster management systems

Hurricane Ida
Hurricane Ida hitting Louisiana. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Deadly natural disasters are impacting communities all over the world — and it's now happening more than ever before.

In a press release on Wednesday, The United Nations announced that the number of natural disasters has increased five-fold over a 50-year period due to climate change and the rise of extreme weather events.

Citing a report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)'s Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes, more than 11,000 disasters struck globally, resulting in over two million deaths — 91% of which occurred in developing countries — and $3.64 trillion in losses.

The report also found that disasters related to a weather, climate or water hazard occurred every day on average for the past 50 years, killing an average of 115 people and costing the U.S. an average of $202 million in losses daily.

"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," WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath
Hurricane Katrina aftermath. Mario Tama/Getty

"That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America," Taalas continued. "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."

According to WMO's report, 44% of disasters worldwide have been associated with floods, 35% is due to storms (including hurricanes) and less than 10% are because of extreme temperatures, landslides, wildfires and droughts, respectively.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina accounted for the most expensive disaster in the world at $163.61 billion, the report stated. Hurricane Harvey, Maria, and Irma — all of which hit the U.S. in 2007 — also made the top 10 list, with Harvey coming in at second with $96.9 billion, Maria in third with $69.4 billion and Irma in fourth at $58.2 billion.

Those three hurricanes also accounted for 35% of the total economic losses of the top 10 disasters around the world from 1970 to 2019, according to the WMO.

Additionally, a drought in Ethiopia was considered to be the deadliest disaster, causing 650,000 deaths, followed by a storm in Bangladesh that killed 577,232 people. Floods and extreme temperature events also made the list, causing thousands of deaths, respectively.

Despite the staggering findings, the WMO noted that the number of deaths decreased nearly threefold from 1970 to 2019.

According to the agency, an average of 170 people died per day in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, only 90 deaths were reported per day, which has since dropped to 40 per day in the 2010s.

"Economic losses are mounting as exposure increases," Taalas said. "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."

Flames consume a home as the Caldor fire pushes into South Lake Tahoe, California on August 30, 2021
Wildfires in California. JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty

Officials said this is due to the improved early warnings and disaster management systems that have been put in place — but noted that there is still more work to be done.

"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," said Mami Mizutori, a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

"More international cooperation is needed to tackle the chronic problem of huge numbers of people being displaced each year by floods, storms and drought," Mizutori added. "We need greater investment in comprehensive disaster risk management ensuring that climate change adaptation is integrated in national and local disaster risk reduction strategies."

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So far, only half of the 193 members of WMO have multi-hazard early warning systems in place, according to the agency's report.

There are also "severe gaps" in weather and hydrological observing networks in Africa, Latin America and the Pacific and Caribbean island states.

To address these issues, the report recommended that countries review their "hazard exposure and vulnerability," strengthen their "disaster risk financing mechanisms" and develop "integrated and proactive policies on slow-onset disasters."

"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," Mizutori said. "And a multi-hazard approach to disaster risk management and early warning systems to reduce risks and strengthen preparedness for multiple disaster scenarios."

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