Extreme weather disasters have increased fivefold in past 50 years, says UN report

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The number of extreme weather disasters recorded across the globe has increased nearly fivefold in the past 50 years, according to a major UN assessment.

A total of 771 disasters linked to climate, weather or water extremes were recorded from 1970 to 1979, the report says. From 2010 to 2019, 3,165 such disasters were recorded.

The climate crisis, which is causing many types of extreme weather events to become more likely and more severe, is likely to be a key driver of the increase, says the report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

An increase in extreme weather event reporting could have also contributed to the rise, the report added.

“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,” said Prof Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the WMO.

“That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America.

“We have more water vapour 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.”

A climate or weather event is considered a disaster if it kills at least 10 people, affects at least 100 people, a declaration of a state of emergency is made or a country makes a call for international assistance.

The report found that economic losses from climate and weather disasters have increased sevenfold over the past five decades.

Hurricanes and storms caused the highest amount of economic damages, the report said.

Three of the costliest 10 disasters in the past 50 years occurred in 2017. These include hurricanes Harvey (which caused $96.9bn in damages), Maria ($69.4bn) and Irma ($58.2bn).

The findings come as North America reels from the impacts of Hurricane Ida, the fifth strongest storm ever recorded on the US mainland. At least four people were killed in the storm and more than a million homes and businesses have been left without power.

Hurricane Ida is the fifth strongest storm ever recorded on the US mainland (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Hurricane Ida is the fifth strongest storm ever recorded on the US mainland (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The report also found that the number of deaths from climate and weather disasters decreased by nearly threefold between 1970 and 2019.

The decline in the number of deaths from climate and weather disasters is likely linked to the introduction of early warning systems in many countries over the past few decades, said report author James Douris, a scientific officer at the WMO.

“One of the trends is that the number of deaths, especially in countries with early warning systems, has decreased,” he told The Independent.

“If you look at Bangladesh, in 1970, there were 300,000 that died in a tropical cyclone. Now those numbers, when a tropical cyclone hits, are far, far less and it’s due to early warning systems.”

Despite the “message of hope”, there are many developing world countries that do not yet have adequate early warning systems for climate and weather disasters, the WMO added.

“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, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The report found that 91 per cent of the deaths from climate and weather disasters over the past 50 years occurred in developing world countries.

“More international cooperation is needed to tackle the chronic problem of huge numbers of people being displaced each year by floods, storms and drought,” said Ms Mizutori.

“We need greater investment in comprehensive disaster risk management ensuring that climate change adaptation is integrated in national and local disaster risk reduction strategies.”

The WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes is the most comprehensive review of death and damages from climate and weather disasters to date.

It is the first report of its kind to include a chapter on attribution science, the study of how the climate crisis is affecting the severity and likelihood of extreme weather events.

The report comes shortly after a landmark assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which concluded that “human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe”.

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