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.