The number of weather disasters – such as floods and heatwaves – driven by climate change has increased fivefold during the past 50 years, killing more than two million people and costing $3.64 trillion in total losses, a UN agency says.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said its “Atlas”, released on Wednesday, is the most comprehensive review of mortality and economic losses from weather, water and climate extremes ever produced.
It surveyed some 11,000 disasters occurring between 1970-2019, including major catastrophes such as Ethiopia’s 1983 drought, which was the single most fatal event with 300,000 deaths, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that was the most costly, with losses of $163.6bn.
The report comes during a disaster-filled season globally, including deadly floods in Germany and a heat wave in the Mediterranean, and with the United States simultaneously struck by powerful Hurricane Ida and an onslaught of drought-worsened wildfires.
“Thanks to our early warning service improvement we have been able to have a decrease of the casualties at these kinds of events, but the bad news is that the economic losses have been growing very rapidly and this growth is supposed to continue,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas told a news conference.
“We are going to see more climatic extreme because of climate change and this negative trend in climate will continue for the coming decades,” he said.
The report showed an accelerating trend, with the number of disasters increasing nearly fivefold from the 1970s to the most recent decade, adding to signs that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to global warming.
The world averaged about 711 weather disasters a year during the 1970s, but from 2000 to 2009 that was up to 3,536 a year or nearly 10 a day, according to the report, which used data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium. The average number of yearly disasters dropped a bit in the 2010s to 3,165, the report said.
Costs from the events also surged from $175.4bn in the 1970s to $1.38 trillion in the 2010s. The five most expensive weather disasters since 1970 were all storms in the US, topped by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The five deadliest weather disasters were in Africa and Asia – topped by the Ethiopian drought and famine in the mid-1980s and Cyclone Bhola in Bangladesh in 1970.
But while hazards became more costly and frequent, the annual death toll has fallen from more than 50,000 in the 1970s to about 18,000 in the 2010s, suggesting that better planning was paying off.
The WMO hopes the report, which gives a detailed regional breakdown, will be used to help governments develop policies to better protect people.
More than 91 percent of the two million deaths occurred in developing countries, the report said, noting that only half of the WMO’s 193 members have multi-hazard early warning systems.
It also said that “severe gaps” in weather observations, especially in Africa, were undermining the accuracy of early warning systems.
Most death and damage in weather disasters came from storms, flooding and drought.
Samantha Montano, an emergency management professor at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and author of the book, Disasterology, said she worries that death tolls may stop decreasing because of the increase in extreme weather from climate change especially hitting poorer nations.
“The disparity in which countries have had the resources to dedicate to minimising disaster deaths is of huge concern,” particularly due to climate change, she said.
Mami Mizutori, head of the UN office for disaster risk reduction, urged the world’s leading economies to help hard-hit developing countries to invest in warning systems and risk modelling.