Natural Disasters killed 220,000 in 2008

A victim of Cyclone Nargis - the single deadliest natural disaster of 2008.As the year draws to a close, researchers have compiled figures of natural disasters in 2008 which show the calendar year was an active one around the globe:

Natural disasters killed over 220,000 people in 2008, making it one of the most devastating years on record and underlining the need for a global climate deal, the world’s number two reinsurer said Monday.

Although the number of natural disasters was lower than in 2007, the catastrophes that occurred proved to be more destructive in terms of the number of victims and the financial cost of the damage caused, Germany-based Munich Re said in its annual assessment.

The author purports that the number of fatalities in 2008 is “one of the most devatstating years on record.”  This conclusion depends on the definition of a natural disaster.  If one includes pandemics such as the Black Death that culled 15-25% of the world’s population (75-100 million people) in the 14th century, 2008 looks relatively tame.  This year’s 220,000 natural disaster-related fatalities represent roughly 0.003% of the world’s population.

Additionally, this research team has drawn some large-scale conclusions about the number of fatalities being related to man-made climate change, a connection is more tenuous than the figures and article would lead you to believe:

“This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes,” Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek said.

Most devastating in terms of human fatalities was Cyclone Nargis, which lashed Myanmar on May 2-3 to kill more than 135,000 people and leave more than one million homeless.

Furthermore, the second deadliest natural disaster of 2008 is in no way tied to atmospheric phenomena or climate change – it was the Sichuan, China earthquake.  This earthquake represents nearly a third of the total fatalities attributed to natural disasters in 2008:

[A]n earthquake shook China’s Sichuan province, leaving 70,000 dead, 18,000 missing and almost five million homeless, according to official figures, Munich Re said.

Other individual events had relatively small and predictable death tolls in less developed countries that are routinely ravaged by natural disasters:

Around 1,000 people died in a severe cold snap in January in Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan, while 635 perished in August and September in floods in India, Nepal and Bangladesh.  Typhoon Fengshen killed 557 people in China and the Philippines in June, while earthquakes in Pakistan in October left 300 dead.

While not as deadly, many of the most costly disasters of 2008 affected the more developed portions of the world where there exists more vulnerable infrastructure:

Six tropical cyclones also slammed into the southern United States, including Ike which, with insured losses of 10 billion dollars, was the industry’s costliest catastrophe of the year.  In Europe, an intense low-pressure system called Emma caused two billion dollars worth of damage in March, while a storm dubbed Hilal in late May and early June left 1.1 billion dollars’ worth.

The earthquake in Sichuan province was the most expensive overall single catastrophe of 2008, causing around 85 billion dollars worth of damage, helping to make the year the third most expensive on record, Munich Re said.

With 200 billion dollars’ worth of damage, only 2005, when a large number of hurricanes slammed into the southern United States, and 1995, year of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, wreaked more destruction since records began in 1900.

Worldwide tropical storm and hurricane activity was up as well, although there were fewer catastrophic land-falling hurricanes than in some recent years:

The number of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic in 2008 was much higher than the long-term average, and in terms of both the total number of storms and the number of major hurricanes, 2008 was the fourth most severe hurricane season since reliable data have been available, it said.

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