In a summer marked by deadly flash flooding, extreme drought, wildfires and unprecedented heat waves, a new report concludes that as global temperatures continue to rise, weather-related disasters are occurring four to five times more often than 50 years ago.
While the planet averaged 711 weather disasters a year in the 1970s, that number grew to 3,536 per year from 2000 to 2009, the report by the World Meteorological Organization found, before dropping slightly to 3,165 per year in the decade beginning in 2010.
Despite the uptick in the number of weather disasters, thanks to advances in early warning systems and disaster management, deaths related to those events have fallen over that same 50-year span from 50,000 in the 1970s to 20,000 in the 2010s. The vast majority of those deaths continue to occur in the developing world, the report found.
“The good news is that we have been able to minimize the amount of casualties once we have started having a growing amount of disasters: heat waves, flooding events, drought and especially ... intense tropical storms like Ida, which has been hitting recently Louisiana and Mississippi in the United States,” WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said at a Wednesday news conference.
“But the bad news is that the economic losses have been growing very rapidly, and this growth is supposed to continue,” he added. “We are going to see more climatic extremes because of climate change, and these negative trends in climate will continue for the coming decades.”
Weather disasters accounted for losses totaling $175 billion globally in the 1970s, a figure that rose to $1.38 trillion in the decade from 2010 to 2019.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, since 1980 the U.S. alone has experienced 298 climate disasters for which damages exceeded $1 billion. In total, those events cost $1.975 trillion. The five most expensive weather disasters since 1970 have all occurred in the U.S., topped by Hurricane Katrina's $163 billion in losses. Katrina also resulted in more than 1,800 deaths.
As of July 9, the U.S. had already seen eight weather disasters this year with losses surpassing $1 billion. Not yet added to that list were the August flooding in Tennessee, the devastation caused by Hurricane Ida and the ongoing tally of losses caused by raging wildfires in California and the West.
Numerous scientific studies have firmly established a link between rising global average temperatures and extreme weather events.
"Rising global average temperature is associated with widespread changes in weather patterns," the Environmental Protection Agency says on its website. "Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change."
On average, global temperatures have risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius since the start of the industrial age, due to the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That warming has had a profound impact on weather patterns, the WMO report concludes, and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that unless mankind stops adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, weather disasters will continue to multiply.
"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," Mami Mizutori, head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, said in a statement.
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