There are more natural disasters than ever. Is climate change the culprit?
As we experience another hurricane season, it may seem as though we hear of more natural disasters each year. Indeed, the data shows that the number of natural disasters varies year-to-year but is exhibiting a steep upward trend overall (1). According to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization, there were five times more natural disasters between 2010 and 2019 than there were between 1970 and 1979 (4). This increase can be attributed in part to elements of climate change, such as increased sea levels and global warming (2).
A natural disaster is a major change in an environment that negatively affects a population; tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all examples of natural disasters (3). Although many factors can contribute to natural disasters, climate change appears to play a major role in their recent increase.
This chart from the Economist shows the number of natural disasters increasing over time. (link)
Climate change is a broad term used to describe both natural and human-caused changes in “temperatures and weather patterns” as well as large-scale processes, such as melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels (5). One effect of climate change is global warming, a result of increased greenhouse gasses, mostly carbon dioxide and methane, causing the Earth to heat up. As the air in our atmosphere warms, more water vapor can be held by the air; as a result, hurricanes and storms generate more intense rainfall, leading to widespread flooding (6).
Drought, another type of natural disaster, is also exacerbated by climate change. Higher temperatures caused by global warming increase the rate at which water evaporates from soil and plants (7). Shifting weather patterns can lead to rapid rainfall and flooding in one area and drought in another. As with all natural disasters, there are numerous reasons why a specific area may experience a drought, but scientists have shown that human activity is partially responsible for the recent increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts (7). The only types of natural disasters not affected by climate change are geophysical disasters, which include earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as they are not influenced by atmospheric changes (8).
Although natural disasters are not preventable, working to diminish the effects of climate change could help reduce their frequency and severity. Despite the recent increase in the occurrence of natural disasters, the number of resulting deaths has fortunately decreased significantly in the past 50 years, even as costs have risen considerably (4). As the reoccurrence of natural disasters increases in the future, humans will need to augment our weather prediction capabilities and engineer better buildings to withstand these natural disasters.
1 Natural disasters occurring three times more often than 50 years ago: new FAO report. (2021, March 18). UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/03/1087702
2 How can climate change affect natural disasters? | U.S. Geological Survey. (2020, June 2). Usgs.gov. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-can-climate-change-affect-natural-disasters
3 Shirley, J. S. (2016). Natural Disasters – Forecasting Economic and Life Losses – USGS Fact Sheet. Usgs.gov. https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/natural-disasters/
4 World Meteorological Organization. (2021). WMO ATLAS OF MORTALITY AND ECONOMIC LOSSES FROM WEATHER, CLIMATE AND WATER EXTREMES (1970–2019). Geneva, Switzerland.
5 Nations, U. (2020). What Is Climate Change? | United Nations. United Nations; United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/what-is-climate-change
6 Colbert, A. (2022, June 16). A Force of Nature: Hurricanes in a Changing Climate. Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. https://climate.nasa.gov/news/3184/a-force-of-nature-hurricanes-in-a-changing-climate/
7 Means, T. (2021, August 18). Climate change and droughts: What’s the connection? Yale Climate Connections; Yale Climate Connections. https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/08/climate-change-and-droughts-whats-the-connection/
8 How, A., & Ruppel, C. (2022, October 4). personal.