climate change

Natural disasters by decade

I’ve written several times about the rise in the number of natural disasters, but we just got a detailed look at the problem from the World Meteorological Organisation. This summer they’ve published The Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes (1970–2012) as a summary of what is happening around the world.

It’s a clear reminder that the climate has already changed, and that more extreme weather events are a present reality, not a future threat.


As before, it would be easy to suggest that perhaps we’re just better at reporting disasters – but then the number of non-weather related disasters (such as earthquakes and tsunamis) hasn’t risen in the same way. There really is something going on.

The rise in natural disasters holds across all the regions, but the effects are different in different parts of the world. Africa and Europe have seen a major rise in floods. North America is more affected by storms, while Russia and Eastern Europe has seen a marked increase in extreme temperatures and forest fires.

As well as the types of disaster, another key difference is the cost. If we’re talking about mortality, developing countries are worst affected. Droughts and storms in poorer countries lead to the highest loss of life, with the Ethiopian famine of 1983 being the worst in the current records. But if we’re talking about economic loss, five of the most expensive natural disasters have been in the United States – Hurricane Katrina topping the list at $146 billion in damage.

The rise of natural disasters is important in emphasizing that climate change is not a theoretical future problem, but a reality today. It is also a clear indication that we have to talk about adaptation to our changing world as well as mitigating the ongoing effects of climate change. The programme of works on New York’s coastline is a good example.


  1. Interestingly The Geo-Research Dept. of Munich re on the other hand reports that despite rising numbers of disasters the actual damage (here we are talking about insured damage only) is not rising in the same way, one reason possibly being improved prediction, warning and disaster response. Munich-Re is the world’s largest re-insurance companies and an interesting source on global disasters. See for example the following press release. The full reports are also publicly available.

    1. Yes, I’ve used their graphs on previous posts. They report a similar pattern in the number of events. Losses vary a bit more. There was a steady rise through the 90s, when warming was also proceeding in a straighter line. It’s a bit more chaotic now.

      I’d be interested to know if/how mortality is included in those costs.

  2. You would expect more recent disasters to cause more death and damage as there are more people around to get involved in any given area and there are more things to be damaged.

    That the actual damage is not rising as Stefan’s Munich Re report suggests say much that adaption is a more cost effective method to dealing with climate change than hamstringing the economy to cut CO2 emissions in the short term with expensive half developed solutions.

    (Terminological question. What is the difference between adapting to a changing world and mitigating the effects of ongoing climate change? Are they not the same?).

    1. Are those our only two options – just adapt, or ‘hamstring’ our economy?

      Mitigation refers to climate action to reduce the impact of warming – hoping for a 2 or 3 degree rise rather than a 4 or 6 degree world. Adaptation is working to adjust to the change.

      You need both. Mitigation without adaptation is a good way to wreck your economy by being unprepared for the warming that’s already locked in. Adaptation without mitigation means looking after yourself and telling Africa, Australia and the Middle East that they can go to hell.

  3. Jeremy, a question please. If we mitigate the forces of nature by adaptations (eg. the barricades around New York), won’t nature’s forces land on someone else’s lap?

    1. Not unless we’re doing daft things like attempting to air-condition whole cities. Adaptation is a broad field, but it could include things like better irrigation techniques that can handle droughts better, seed varieties that work in higher temperatures, houses that keep cool in summer, and all manner of things that just work to tweak the way we live and work in a changing climate.

  4. $18,000 Billion

    One third of our total national wealth. That folks is our Debt. How did we get it? $6000 in Bush 8 years $6000 in Obama 6 years How can we pay it? Tax the rich for that is where the money is stored. Increase Minimum Tax Increase jobs=more income tax and payroll tax. Remember that Clinton-Gingrich increased the Minimum Wage and gave us greatest economic growth? history. Remember four straight balanced budgets? Clarence swinney

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