The number of deadly natural disasters has quintupled over the past five decades.
That’s five times the hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts and other extreme weather events than seen before 1970, according to a new report published Wednesday by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).
Climate- and weather-related disasters accounted for 50% of all noted disaster events on Earth; 45% of all reported deaths (2 million) and 74% of economic losses ($3.64 trillion) around the globe — a majority of which occurred in developing countries.
However, thanks to increasingly efficient warning systems, the number of deaths as a result of disasters decreased almost three-fold between 1970 and 2019 — down to just 20,000 lives lost during the 2010s.
The report comes as more than 1 million people remain without power since Hurricane Ida made landfall Sunday and are enduring the sweltering heat that is typical of the Gulf Coast at this time of year. So far, six are confirmed dead following the storm, though the number is expected to rise as rescue efforts are underway.
“Economic losses are mounting as exposure increases. But, behind the stark statistics, lies a message of hope. Improved multi-hazard early warning systems have led to a significant reduction in mortality. Quite simply, we are better than ever before at saving lives,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.
Despite the uptick in hurricane ferocity or extreme flooding severity, widespread drought is considered the deadliest of the top 10 disasters, according to the report, causing an estimated 650,000 deaths in 50 years, followed by severe storms, which caused more than 577,000 deaths. Floods and high heat were responsible for more than 58,000 and 55,000 deaths each, respectively.
The economic cost is also staggering as natural disasters now account for an average daily loss of $383 million around the world, compared with $49 million per day in the 1970s. The costliest of all natural disasters is by far hurricanes and other extreme storms: Three hurricanes that occurred in 2017 — Harvey, Maria and Irma — ate up 35% of the global economic disaster losses between 1970 and 2019.
“The number of weather, climate and water extremes are increasing and will become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” Taalas said. “That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America.”
Meteorologists and climate scientists blame warming oceans and a proliferation of water vapor in the air — caused by sustained, higher-than-average temperatures as of late — for exacerbating extreme weather conditions. WMO researchers point to previous studies that implicate human activity for the uptick in natural disasters. One such study found that 62 of 77 disastrous weather events occurring between 2015 and 2017 “revealed major human-influence at play,” the report says.