During 2011, 820 natural catastrophes were documented around the world, resulting in 27,000 deaths and $380 billion in economic losses, according to data compiled by Munich Reinsurance Company and analyzed in the Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs series. The number of natural catastrophes was down 15 percent from 2010 but was above the annual average of 790 events between 2001 and 2010, and considerably above the annual average of 630 events between 1981 and 2010.
"The influence of La Niña from January to May and August to December was a major cause of many of the extreme weather events in 2011," said report author Petra Löw, a geographer and Munich Re consultant who focuses on natural catastrophe losses. "In 2011, 91 percent of natural disasters were weather-related."
(For more, see: La Nina predictions a high-wire act)
The report found that only 9 percent of natural disasters were geophysical events, but these events, which include the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, accounted for 62 percent of overall fatalities. Japan suffered 15,840 fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
"The steady increase in losses from natural catastrophes around the world demonstrates the need for preventative measures to the world's poorest and most vulnerable communities protect themselves," said Worldwatch President Robert Engelman. "These communities often have little beyond their own wits and meager resources to help them recover from a crop failure, the destruction of a home, or the tragic loss of a family's breadwinner."
The report analyzes natural catastrophes by their geographic location, type (geophysical, meteorological, hydrological, or climatological), deadliness, and costliness. Most natural disasters in 2011 occurred in the Americas (290) and Asia (240), while fewer occurred in Europe (150), Africa (80), and Australia (60). Of the weather-related natural catastrophes, 37 percent were caused by storms (meteorological), 37 percent by floods (hydrological), and 17 percent by climatological events such as heat waves, cold waves, wildfire, and droughts.
In 2011, 27,000 people died in sudden-onset natural catastrophes----63 percent below the annual average of 73,000 fatalities between 1980 and 2010. (These figures exclude slow-onset famine victims, discussed below.) In contrast, in 2010, the deadliest year recorded in the 30-year period, 296,000 people died from natural catastrophes. The report found that 38 percent of all victims of such catastrophes died from weather-related events, the rest being caused by geophysical events.
Droughts are deadliest
The deadliest weather disasters are droughts followed by famines, particularly in Africa. From October 2010 to September 2011, a severe drought in the Horn of Africa caused widespread famine and large-scale migratory movements, particularly in Somalia and Kenya. Around 80 percent of the livestock of Somalia's nomadic population died, some 13 million people required humanitarian aid, and an estimated 50,000 people lost their lives. But because human agency played a large role in this catastrophe, it was not included in the analysis of 2011 natural disasters.
The monetary losses from 2011's natural catastrophes reached a record $380 billion, surpassing the previous record of $220 billion set in 2005. The year's three costliest natural catastrophes were the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan (costing $210 billion), the August-November floods in Thailand ($40 billion), and the February earthquake in New Zealand ($16 billion).
The report notes that Asia experienced 70 percent, or $265 billion, of the total monetary losses from natural disasters around the world----up from an average share of 38 percent between 1980 and 2010. This can be attributed to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as the devastating floods in Thailand: Thailand's summer monsoons, probably influenced by a very intensive La Niña situation, created the costliest flooding to date, with $40 billion in losses.
Further highlights from the report:
The last decade was dominated by a series of devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, with an enormous human impact. These included geophysical events in Haiti in 2010 (222,570 deaths); in Southeast Asia in 2004 (220,000 deaths); in Pakistan in 2005 (88,000 deaths); and in China in 2008 (84,000 deaths).
The costliest weather-related disasters are tropical cyclones, floods, winter storms, and thunderstorms. Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in 2005 and caused $125 billion in overall losses, was the most expensive weather catastrophe ever.
Ninety-five percent of Europe's 150 disasters in 2011 were weather-related. The continent's overall economic loss of $2.5 billion is one of the lowest annual figures since 1980.
With 551 fatalities, the 2011 U.S. tornado season was the deadliest in more than 85 years. The Atlantic Ocean hurricane season was the third-strongest since record-keeping began, with 19 named storms. And in May and June 2011, the worst floods in decades occurred along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, causing more than $5 billion in overall losses.