As the Planet Has Warmed, Weather Disasters Have Grown Fivefold, Analysis Shows

In Dominica, damage left by Hurricane Maria, September 19, 2017.

In Dominica, damage left by Hurricane Maria, September 19, 2017. Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit via Flickr

Weather disasters have become five times more common since 1970, due in large part to climate change, according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“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,” WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. “That means more heatwaves, drought, and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America.”

Of the 77 weather-related disasters to strike between 2015 and 2017, 62 show the influence of human-caused climate change, the report found. And the pace of climate change is now accelerating, portending more catastrophic disasters in the years to come, according to a scientific assessment from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in August.

The new report found that storms and floods were the most prevalent disasters, with storms causing the deepest economic losses. The five costliest disasters ever are all hurricanes that have struck the United States in the last two decades. The United States accounts for more than one third of all losses caused by weather, climate, and water hazards.

Droughts accounted for the gravest human losses, with severe droughts in Ethiopia in 1973 and 1983, Mozambique in 1981, and Sudan in 1983 were responsible for some 650,000 deaths.

One bright spot in the new report: While disasters have grown more prevalent, deaths have declined, dropping from around 50,000 annually in the 1970s to fewer than 20,000 in the 2010s, thanks to better early warning systems. “Quite simply, we are better than ever before at saving lives,” Taalas said.

However, UN officials warned, early warning systems remain woefully insufficient in much of the developing world, where more than 91 percent of disaster-related deaths occur.

“More lives are being saved thanks to early warning systems but it is also true that the number of people exposed to disaster risk is increasing due to population growth in hazard-exposed areas and the growing intensity and frequency of weather events,” said Mami Mizutori, special representative of the secretary-general for disaster risk reduction. “More international cooperation is needed to tackle the chronic problem of huge numbers of people being displaced each year by floods, storms and drought.”