Devastating Natural Disasters Continue Steady Rise

Petra Low | Jun 04, 2009

In 2008, some 750 natural disasters occurred worldwide, down from 960 in 2007, a drop of 22 percent.1  But the decline is less heartening than it appears: first, 2007 had been a record year, and, second, while the number of smaller disasters fell in 2008, major catastrophes continued their longstanding upward trend.2  Some 82 percent of these—672 events—were weather-related disasters.3

Natural disasters can be divided into six damage categories based on their financial and human impact—from a natural event with very little economic impact to a great natural disaster.4  (See Table 1.) A decline in disasters from 2007 to 2008 is noticeable in Categories 1 and 2 (minor events). In Categories 3 and 4, the number was roughly the same in both years. But in Category 5 an upward trend is discernible: there were 40 “devastating disasters” in 2008—the highest number ever recorded in this category.5  (See Figure 1.) These included Hurricane Gustav; the monsoon floods in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal; and Typhoon Fengshen in the Philippines. Only one event in this category—the earthquake in June in Japan, with an overall economic losses of $520 million —was not weather-related.6

Catastrophes are also divided into geophysical, hydrological, meteorological, and climatological events. Analysis of each event type back to 1980 shows a distinct difference between weather-related events and geophysical ones. The number of hydrological events (floods, flash floods, mass movements) in particular has risen significantly worldwide over the years, but so have the number of meteorological events (tropical and extra tropical storms) and the incidence of extreme temperatures (heat wave, drought, wildfire).7  (See Figure 2.)

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