Natural Disasters Claimed 295,000 Lives Last Year

Natural Disasters Claimed 295,000 Lives Last Year

MUNICH, Germany, January 3, 2011 (ENS) – Natural disasters killed some 295,000 people around the world last year, “an exceptionally high number of fatalities,” according to one of the world’s largest insurers.

Munich Re said in a report today, “The high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change.”

This assessment is confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, which said in December that “2010 is almost certain to rank in the top three warmest years since the beginning of instrumental climate records in 1850.”

A total of 950 natural disasters were recorded last year, nine-tenths of them weather-related events such as storms and floods. This made 2010 the year with the second-highest number of natural catastrophes in the past 30 years, the company said.

“2010 showed the major risks we have to cope with. There were a number of severe earthquakes. The hurricane season was also eventful – it was just fortunate that the tracks of most of the storms remained over the open sea. But things could have turned out very differently,” said Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re’s Reinsurance CEO.

Residents of Port-au-Prince view burning rubble after earthquake, January 16, 2010. (Photo by Moises Saman/Panos Pictures/ActionAid)

The overall picture last year was dominated by severe earthquakes to an extent seldom experienced in recent decades, the company reported.

“The severe earthquakes and the hurricane season with so many storms demonstrate once again that there must be no slackening of our efforts to analyze these risks in detail and provide the necessary insurance covers at adequate prices,” Jeworrek said. “These prices calculated by the insurance industry make it possible to assess the economic consequences of these otherwise difficult-to-evaluate risks.”

The overall losses last year amounted to around US$130 billion, of which approximately US$37 billion was insured. This puts 2010 among the six most loss-intensive years for the insurance industry since 1980, said Jeworrek.

The level of overall losses was slightly above the high average of the past 10 years.

Most catastrophes occurred on the American continent, which recorded 365, and in Asia, which counted 310. Just 120 natural catastrophes were recorded in Europe, 90 in Africa and 65 in Australia/Oceania. North and South America accounted for the largest portion of insured losses, around two-thirds.

Munich Re assigned five of the 2010 catastrophes to the top category of “great natural catastrophes” based on the definition criteria of the United Nations – the earthquake in Haiti on January 12, the earthquake in Chile on February 27, and the earthquake in central China on April 13, the heatwave in Russia, which lasted from July to September, and the floods in Pakistan which also continued from July to September.

These accounted for the major share of fatalities in 2010 and just under half the overall losses caused by natural catastrophes, said the insurance company.

One of the most devastating earthquakes in the history of the past 100 years, the quake in Haiti on January 12 killed more than 220,000 people. Only the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China claimed more lives, 242,000.

Pakistani woman flees the floodwaters, keeping her children afloat, September 4, 2010. (Photo by Shabab Uddin)

“While the earthquake in Haiti resulted in human tragedy on a staggering scale, it gave rise to only negligible losses for the insurance industry, as is so often the case in developing countries,” says the Munich Re report.

Five hundred times more energy than in the Haiti quake was released by the earthquake that hit Chile just over a month later – the fifth-strongest earthquake ever measured. With overall losses of US$30 billion and insured losses of US$8 billion, this quake was last year’s most expensive natural catastrophe.

In the summer, floods following extreme monsoon rainfall had devastating consequences in Pakistan. For weeks, up to one-quarter of the country was flooded. The floods affected an estimated 20 million people, many of whom lost all their worldly possessions. The overall loss totalled US$9.5 billion, said Munich Re, an extremely high amount for Pakistan’s emerging economy.

Millions of Pakistanis are still in need of assistance, two senior United Nations officials said Thursday.

“With an estimated 20 million people affected by devastating floods, the country faced its biggest ever humanitarian crisis,” Rauf-Engin Soysal, the secretary-general’s special envoy for assistance to Pakistan, and UN Resident Coordinator Timo Pakkala said in a joint message.

The $2 billion appeal for aid for Pakistani flood victims made in September, the largest-ever launched by the UN for a natural disaster, is currently 51 percent funded.

The heatwave in Russia and neighboring countries between July and September brought record high temperatures to Moscow. In some regions of central Russia, temperatures exceeded 30 degrees Celsius for two months.

Smoke from wildfires blanketed Moscow’s Red Square, August 6, 2010. (Photo by Alesandrox)

Russian forests burned, with the fires threatening nuclear facilities and areas where the ground had been contaminated by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. At least 56,000 people died as a result of heat and air pollution, making it the most deadly natural disaster in Russia’s history.

Munich Re calls the Atlantic hurricane season a “lucky escape.” Favorable weather patterns meant that the U.S. coast was not hit by a single hurricane, but in Mexico a few storms caused substantial damage.

Otherwise, hurricanes moved away from land in a northeasterly direction, only grazing some islands in the Caribbean.

But in terms of the number and intensity of the storms, it was one of the severest hurricane seasons of the past 100 years, according to the Munich Re report.

There were 19 named tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic last year, equaling the number recorded in 1995 and putting 2010 in joint third place after 2005, which had 28 named storms and 1933, which had 21.

Twelve of last year’s Atlantic storms attained hurricane strength, with five of these falling into the top hurricane categories with wind speeds over 178 km/h (110 mph).

“This means the forecasts of various institutes about the number of storms turned out to be very accurate,” said Munich Re.

“The number of storms was indeed well above average. It is just that it is impossible to forecast whether and where such storms will make landfall,” said Professor Peter Höppe, who heads Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research.

Right at the start of the 2010 hurricane season, the water temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic were up to two degrees Celsius above the long-term mean – and thus significantly higher than the level to be expected for the cyclical warm phase in the North Atlantic that has persisted since 1995, he said.

“That is in line with the trend of the past 30 years, in which all ocean basins show an increase in water temperatures. This long-term trend can no longer be explained by natural climate oscillations alone,” said Höppe. “The probability is that climate change is contributing to some of the warming of the world’s oceans.”

Höppe predicted, “This influence will increase further and, together with the continuing natural warm phase in the North Atlantic, is likely to mean a further high level of hurricane activity in the coming years.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.

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