A poor neighbourhood shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti.
EMDAT is a database which stores information on natural disasters. On it you can find the number, and global dispersal of disasters per year separated into their different categories. If you plot graphs from this data, which I admit to having done, you can recognize the net increase in frequency that environmentalists have been talking about for some time. You have to be careful not to jump to conclusions, because the data itself does not tell the whole story. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was recently made a little less credible when it was revealed that the claims it had made correlating increased frequency in natural disasters and human induced global warming were not only misleading, but also based on uncertain scientific data. This kind of policy ‘hiccup’ has had serious implications for environmental science and the IPCC, as well as distracting from the actual reasons why, as the years go by, we see more and more people affected by natural disasters.
Displaced people fleeing Sindh streamed into Balochistan.
The past ten years have further solidified the evidence of increase, and this year is already set to continue the trend, but before a person can speculate on these numbers, some important distinctions must be made. First the number of disasters doesn’t relate to the damage they do; less can very often mean more. Second, many categories of disasters are essentially stable, and the group that have the greatest growth curve can be placed under the title of hydro-meteorological, which roughly translates as weather related. Isolated large scale losses, both of life and property tend to be the work of earthquakes. Earthquakes and storms are very different phenomenon with very different causes. Finally, massive environmental events that don’t cause loss don’t get recorded at all. My totals are representative of storms, floods, extreme temperatures, droughts, wildfires, water induced landslides, epidemics, volcanoes and earthquakes. For consistency I give relative proportions of those totals as percentages for floods, storms, droughts and earthquakes, as these represent the most frequent and effecting disaster types, although I do include others when their proportion is notable.
A US navy helicopter refuels while on rescue runs over flooded Mozambique.
2000: Total = 541. Flood 29.21% (158) Storm 18.85% (102) Drought 7.76% (42) Earthquake 5.73% (31)
The turn of the millennium was particularly bad for natural disasters. Mumbai had a landslide, North Carolina had a winter storm and the first of a series of Sumatran earthquakes took place which would continue through the decade. Mozambique had the worst flooding for 50 years, resulting in approximately 800 deaths, 20,000 lost cattle and 113,000 misplaced households after heavy rain which lasted for 5 weeks. The Atlantic hurricane season’s personality of the year was Keith, who along with Hurricanes Isaac and Alberto was responsible for 57 fatalities and an unusually low $1.2bn in damages.
Landslide during the 2001 El salavdore earthquake
2001: Total = 468. Flood 33.55% (157) Storm 23.08% (108) Drought 8.97% (42) Earthquake 5.34% (25)
2001 was a quiet year in comparison to 2000, it was most notable for its earthquakes. On January the 26th a large earthquake devastated the Indian state of Gujarat. It registered 7.9 on the Richter scale, spread out over a 700km circumference and caused more than 20,000 deaths and 167,000 injuries. Another earthquake in El Salvadore triggered a landslide and left a further 850 dead. There were wildfires in the USA, particularly in Washington and Hurricane Michelle swept across the eastern Atlantic coast, where she was partly responsible for killing 106 people and causing $7.1bn in damages.
Flooding across Europe
2002: Total = 519. Flood 32.95% (171) Storm 23.09% (124) Drought 7.32% (38) Earthquake 7.13% (37)
A 500ft chunk of a glacier, travelling at 100 miles an hour, made its way down the Koban valley in Russia, bringing with it an equally deadly mud flow which killed 125 people. An earthquake in Afghanistan killed another 2,600, while heat waves in India and flooding in Europe killed over 1,000 more. Interestingly, an explosion equal in power to an atomic bomb was recorded over the Mediterranean sea, the source was believed to be an undetected asteroid. Hurricanes Isidore, Lili, Gustav and Kyle caused a relatively low $2.6bn worth of damage along the east Atlantic coast.
2003: Total = 429. Flood 37.06% (159) Storm 19.81% (85) Drought 5.36% (23) Epidemic 14.05% (59) Earthquake 9.32% (40)
Droughts caused wild fires in Australia and Canada, while a European heatwave killed 40,000 people. Blizzards put Boston under 36in of snow, heavy rainfall put Santa Fe underwater and the Bam earthquake in Iran put 26,271 unfortunate people under rubble. 2003 was also the year of the SARS outbreak, causing 744 deaths. The Atlantic hurricane season was particularly long and powerful. The category 5 hurricane Isabel caused 51 deaths and wrought $3.6bn in damages.
The destruction of the Tsunami, Sumatra, Indonesia.
2004: Total = 398. Flood 32.41% (129) Storm 31.91% (127) Drought 4.77% (19) Earthquake% 10.55 (42)
2004 was the first of two consecutive years which would become famous for devastating natural disasters. The year began with a drought which affected the entirety of southern Africa, and then continued with floods in Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique and Namibia. The end of February saw a 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Morocco causing $400m in losses. Serious flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal over July caused $5bn in damage and killed an estimated 2,200, while affecting 40 million more. Hurricane Charley rocked Florida and Typhoon Winnie the Philippines, and together they caused more than $21bn in damages and killed around 800. A 6.8 magnitude earthquake shook Japan causing another $30bn in damage. On the 26th of December, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale caused a wall of unstoppable water to collide with the Pacific coasts of Indonesia and south east Asia. The Tsunami impacted 12 nations, caused an estimated $600bn in damages and killed over 220,000 people.
Post Katrina wreckage
2005: Total = 492. Flood 39.23% (193) Storm 26.42% (130) Drought 5.49% (27) Epidemic 11.18% (55) Earhthquake 5.08% (25)
Between January and October an estimated 88,117 people were killed by natural disasters according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). These events included a volcanic eruption in El Salvadore, a famine in Niger which killed over 10,000, and the beginnings of a flu pandemic. In October a magnitude 7.6 earthquake was recorded on the Indian-Pakistan border, it killed 79,000 and displaced 3.3 million more. Other powerful earthquakes hit Iran and Indonesia. That year’s Atlantic hurricane season was the most active in recorded history. In total an estimated 3,865 deaths and $130bn in damages were caused. Five separate storms were responsible for the majority of the damage, Dennis, Emily, Rita, Wilma and Katrina. The latter has become the most famous hurricane personality in the history of named storms. Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the USA but wasn’t, in meteorological terms, a particularly strong storm. Katrina never measured any more than a category 3 and spent most of its time as category 1.
The Philippines landslide in 2006 killed over 1100 people.
2006: Total = 473. Flood 47.99% (227) Storm 16.07% (76) Drought 4.23% (20) Earthquake 5.07% (24)
2006 was the start of two years of heavy flooding. In the Philippines a landslide caused by heavy rains and a small earthquake sent the cliff face of a ridge into collapse, burying the village of Guinsaugon, including its elementary school. In August Ethiopia was hit by flash floods resulting in over 10,000 homeless. At the same time Pakistan and India had similar flooding that displaced another 1.5 million. The Indonesian island of Java was hit by a powerful earthquake and then a tsunami, which together caused over 4,000 deaths. The previous year’s hurricane season was mediated by an almost non existent one. No hurricanes made landfall and it was the first time since 1994 that no tropical cyclones formed during October.
UK Flooding, July 24 2007
2007: Total = 452. Flood 48.23% (218) Storm 23.23% (105) Drought 2.88% (13) Earthquake 4.65% (21)
The UK had the worst flooding on record, some areas receiving a month’s worth of rainfall in just 24 hours. North Korea experienced intense flooding, announcing it had also had serious flooding the previous year, but had not informed the international community. Bangladesh had a lucky escape from a cyclone and the Indian subcontinent was hit with a series of intense storms killing well over 1,000 people. In Hungary there was a heat wave with daily mean temperatures of 30′C and a record high of 41.9′C. A very strong magnitude 8.0 earthquake shook Peru destroying more than 58,000 homes. The hurricane season was unusual for producing two category 5 storms, Felix and Dean. They combined with the tropical storms of the season to cause 423 deaths and $3bn in damages.
Sichuan earthquake damage
2008: Total = 395. Flood 42.03% (166) Storm 28.35% (112) Drought 4.56% (18) Earthquake 5.82% (23)
On May 12 the Chinese province of Sichuan was levelled by a 8.0 magnitude earthquake. The epicenter was about 80km north west of the province capital. The total death toll was over 70,000 and 4.8 million people were left homeless. It was the worst earthquake in China since 1976 and the strongest since 1950. Ten days previous a tropical cyclone had swept across Myanmar, killing over 100,000 and Bangladesh flooded again. Hurricane Ike set the record for the biggest tropical cyclone ever observed in the Atlantic basin. In Haiti, Ike and sibling storms Fay, Gustav and Hanna killed 800.
Flooded houses in Trizidela do Vale (MA), Brazil
2009: Total = 393. Flood 38.17% (150) Storm 22.14% (87) Drought 6.62% (26) Extreme temperature 6.11% (24) Earthquake 5.60% (22)
Natural disasters were at a decade low during 2009. The UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction described the information as “good news”, but pointed out that “extreme weather disasters remain the top of the list and will continue to affect more people in the future”. There were earthquakes in Italy and Sumatra, storms in Taiwan and the Philippines, and flooding in Brazil, but nothing like the mass effect events of the previous few years. Even the Atlantic Hurricane season was quiet, Hurricane Bill and Ida hardly worthy of a mention. The relative numbers for 2010 are still adding up, but it looks like the respite of 2009 was short lived. The Haiti earthquake in January, 2010 killed around 230,000, more than the Tsunami of 2004. Recent news media is already reporting landslides and heat waves, as well as some of the worst flooding in history, and wildfires across the globe.
People walk by a body pulled out from the rubble of a building that collapsed after the earthquake that rocked Port au Prince on January 12.
It is important to understand that all this data is actually quite misleading. A natural disaster is only recorded when it incurs some loss of life or property, without that notoriety it is simply classed as the equivalent of bad weather. 2008 was the year of the devastating Sichuan earthquake, but 2009 actually had more magnitude 7+ earthquakes, only they occurred in areas of low population. Hurricanes Ike, Isabel, Dean and Felix all made Katrina look like a breeze, but never visited New Orleans and so will fade into history. When you consider that kind of information, the reality of the natural disaster increase is laid bare. As we populate every corner of the planet in poorly constructed and crowded cities, along the coasts and fault lines, we increasingly expose ourselves to dangerous odds in which our chance of loosing only increases. There is evidence which shows how elevated global temperatures are affecting different meteorological events, and to discount the effect climate change is having would be foolish, but if you accept that pollution is a symptom of population, it is surely time to accept that in terms of loss, natural disasters are too.