Sep 1, 2021 - Science

UN: Weather disasters more common, costly but less deadly than in the past

A person walking through floodwater left behind by Hurricane Ida in LaPlace, Louisiana, on Aug. 30.
Floodwaters left behind by Hurricane Ida make passage difficult in LaPlace, Louisiana, on Aug. 30. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Weather-related disasters have become more common and more costly over the past 50 years but so far have killed fewer people than catastrophes in the past, according to a new report from the United Nations' weather agency.

Why it matters: The World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) report, which includes the most comprehensive reviews of mortality and economic losses from weather disasters to date, found the increase in extreme events has been driven by climate change and improved reporting.

By the numbers: An average of 711 weather disasters were recorded throughout the 1970s, 3,536 were recorded in the 2000s and 3,165 were logged in the 2010s, according to the WMO.

  • Around 556,000 people died from weather disasters in the 1970s, compared to roughly 185,000 throughout the 2010s.
  • The economic losses from such events have grown exponentially over the last five decades. Roughly $175.4 billion was lost from during the 1970s, while extreme weather events caused around $1.38 trillion in damages in the 2010s.
  • Storms, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, caused around 39% of the 2,064,929 deaths from weather disasters over the last five decades. Drought accounted for 34% of deaths.

Yes, but: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that the cost of weather disasters has increased in the U.S. in part because more assets are threatened by extreme weather, which is becoming more frequent due to climate change.

  • The WMO said the decrease in deaths was the result of improved early warning systems and preparation and recovery procedures.

What they're saying: “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,” says WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a press release Wednesday.

  • “That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America. We have more water vapor in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms,” he added.

The big picture: The United States is simultaneously being wracked by erratic climate change-related, heat and drought-driven wildfires in Western states and by the aftermath of Hurricane Ida — potentially the fifth-strongest storm ever to make landfall in the U.S.

  • The exact economic toll of Ida is not currently known, but it could cause an estimated 0.2% drag on GDP because of higher energy prices, supply chain disruptions and extensive property damage.
  • Over the summer, flooding events in Germany and China killed hundreds of people.

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