Natural Disasters Becoming More Frequent

Myanmar post-NargisThe trend of more frequent global natural disasters continues, due to an onslaught of weather-related crises in the first half of 2008.

The total number of disasters as of June 30, 2008 already exceeds the average number of disasters recorded at mid-year over the past decade. Although 2008 is not on pace to eclipse 2007 as registering the most natural disasters ever, an especially active Atlantic hurricane season is expected.

During the first half of each year between 1998 and 2007, the average number of disasters recorded was 380. So far in 2008, 400 disasters have been reported, according to data released last week by Munich Re, a German reinsurance group.

The data covers geological events, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as weather-related disasters like storms, floods, and heat waves.

Based on the mid-year report, 2008 is following the steady rise in natural disasters that Munich Re has tracked since 1980. The average number of disasters throughout the 1980s was 400. It increased to 630 in the 1990s and to 730 in the past ten years. The highest recorded number of natural disasters, 960, occurred in 2007, Munich Re reported.

So far this year, tornadoes, severe thunderstorms, and massive flooding have crippled the American Midwest. An earthquake in China's Sichuan province killed more than 69,000 people and caused an estimated $20 billion in damages. Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar killed at least 84,000 people and left at least $10 billion in damages. The majority of this year's disasters, 80 percent, are classified as severe thunderstorms, Munich Re says.

While other years have experienced more costly disasters, both overall economic losses and insured losses are higher in 2008 than the average losses recorded in the first half of each of the past ten years. This year's natural disasters have so far caused $50 billion in economic losses and $13 billion in insured losses, compared with $35 billion and $9 billion, respectively, over the past decade. The year of Hurricane Katrina, 2005, was the costliest ever recorded, with nearly $250 billion in combined losses.

In the United States, 109 natural disaster events have been recorded this year as of June 30 - the highest mid-year total ever for the country. During the 1980s, most years recorded less than half the number of disasters throughout all 12 months of the year. The 2008 insured property loss there due to thunderstorm events, $8.1 billion, is also record-breaking for the January-June period, Munich Re said.

A high number of disasters occurred last year despite the fact that the Atlantic hurricane season was much milder than in recent years. The 2008 Atlantic hurricane season has just begun and is expected to be more active than average. If the predictions are correct, 2008 may unfortunately surpass 2007 to become the most disastrous year ever.

Hurricane forecasters at Colorado State University predict 15 named storms and eight hurricanes this year. In the average season from 1950 to 2000, 9.6 named storms and 5.9 hurricanes have occurred.

While climate change cannot be linked to any individual weather event, it is widely accepted that warmer temperatures associated with climate change cause more extreme weather. "The year is following the long-term trend towards more weather catastrophes, which is influenced by climate change," said Torsten Jeworrek, a Munich Re board member.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in its 2007 assessment that "various extreme events are very likely to change in magnitude and/or frequency and location with global warming." Predicted changes include extended periods of hot days and nights, and greater precipitation in higher latitudes. More intense tropical cyclones caused by warmer sea surfaces, while debated within the scientific community, are "likely," the report says.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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