Climate Change Influences Disaster Trends

katrina satellite imageAt a May 25–26 workshop in Hohenkammer, Germany, scientists, economists, and insurance analysts agreed that regardless of its underlying causes, climate change has had an increasing influence on disaster trends in recent decades. Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance company, joined the University of Colorado at Boulder in organizing the event, which brought together more than 30 experts in the fields of climatology and disaster analysis to discuss the causes of rising economic and human losses due to natural disasters.

According to Munich Re data (9.5MB PDF), the frequency of weather-related catastrophes such as windstorms and floods has increased six-fold since the 1950s, while the frequency of other types of disasters has risen only slightly. Until recently, scientists and insurance experts had tended to disagree on the reasons for the rise in weather-related disasters, but there is now growing consensus that changing patterns of extreme events are a leading culprit, reports Nature magazine.

Worldwatch researcher Zoe Chafe agrees that a combination of many factors has led to the growing impacts of natural disasters. She notes that the trend to locate settlements in coastal areas in particular has worsened the economic toll of such events. Insurance damages from weather-related disasters reached an estimated $92 billion in 2005, more than double the losses in 2004, according to Munich Re.

Germanwatch, a non-profit group associated with Worldwatch that participated in the May workshop, has used Munich Re’s disaster data to construct a “Climate Risk Index” of the ten countries hardest hit by weather-related disasters in 2004. While the ranking is dominated by developing countries—including Somalia, the Dominican Republic, and Bangladesh—Japan and the United States also made the list.

Workshop participants agreed that ways to address the rising toll of disasters include adapting to extreme weather events to reduce societal vulnerabilities, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and improving long-term data collection on disasters and climate.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.