The frequency and intensity of natural disasters are expected to increase as our climate continues to shift and change. From the massive floods seen last year in South America, to the intense bushfires that have ravaged Australia in recent years, the potential for the loss of human life and economic damage is huge. Now, researchers have managed to calculate the number of deaths and cost in dollars of all natural disasters to have occurred since 1900.
In total, they estimate that more than $7 trillion worth of economic damage has been done, and over 8 million people killed, by events such as flooding and earthquakes over the last century. Presented at the European Geosciences Union meeting, the analysis by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany looked at over 35,000 events, in the hope that the data could be used by governments to help better plan and respond to any future disasters.
Forest fires have swept across many regions, including Indonesia, Australia, and California, causing loss of property and in some cases lives. Bruno Ismael Silva Alves/Shutterstock
By trawling through records in 90 different languages, they compiled the list which shows that from between 1990 and 2015 the majority of economic losses have been due to flooding, accounting for around 40 percent of the total, but that in recent times that has fallen, being overtaken instead by storms. This, the researchers claim, is down to better flood management by governments around the world, but particularly in China and Japan, who in recent decades have seen a significant decrease in the losses incurred from wide-scale flooding.
Next on the list of the most costly natural disasters was earthquakes, accounting for over a quarter of losses, followed by storms and finally volcanoes at around 1 percent. While the economic cost of these events has increased with time in absolute terms, relatively it is actually decreasing. This is due to a mixture of things, such as better responses to the disasters, but also better building and infrastructure regulations. This does mean, however, that developing nations are disproportionately affected, as they simply don’t have such regulations in place meaning that the damage is greater when disaster strikes.
The Tohoku earthquake is estimated to have killed 18,500 people and made over 450,000 homeless. yanhane/Shutterstock
While the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami – that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster – was found to be the most costly disaster to date, racking up a bill of around $335 billion, interestingly the researchers found that the number of people dying per year due to such events is actually relatively stable. “The absolute total of deaths through natural catastrophes has remained reasonably constant with a slight decrease,” explains Dr. James Daniell. “Around 50,000 people on average die each year.”
This means, considering the human population has been steadily increasing for the entire century, relative to the population the number of deaths has also been decreasing. It is important to mention, however, that due to their ongoing nature, the researchers didn’t include the cost to life or economic impact of droughts or famine, which according to the World Food Programme is thought to cause the deaths of 3.1 million children per year, and that’s not including the adults.
Overall it seems we have been getting better in dealing with most natural disasters during the past century, but how that will play out as they become more intense and more frequent over the coming years and decades, no one knows.