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Extreme weather disasters are happening five times more often because of climate change

A car flooded on a local street as a result of the remnants of Hurricane Ida is seen in Somerville, New Jersey.
A car flooded on a local street as a result of the remnants of Hurricane Ida is seen in Somerville, New Jersey.   -   Copyright  Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP
By Marthe de Ferrer with AP

Weather disasters are striking the world four to five times more often and causing seven times more damage than in the 1970s, the United Nations weather agency reports.

But these disasters are killing far fewer people. In the 1970s and 1980s, they killed an average of about 170 people a day worldwide.

In the 2010s, that dropped to about 40 per day, the World Meteorological Organization said in a report released this week that looks at more than 11,000 weather disasters in the past half-century.

The report comes during a disaster-filled summer globally, with the United States simultaneously struck by powerful Hurricane Ida and an onslaught of drought-worsened wildfires.

In the 1970s, the world averaged about 711 weather disasters a year, but from 2000 to 2009 that was up to 3,536 a year or nearly 10 a day. The average number of yearly disasters dropped a bit in the 2010s to 3,165.

Most death and damage during 50 years of weather disasters came from storms, flooding and drought.

More than 90 per cent of the more than 2 million deaths are in what the UN considers developing nations, while nearly 60 per cent of the economic damage occurred in richer countries.

In the 1970s, weather disasters cost about €148 million a year globally, when adjusted to current currency values, the UN found. That increased to €1.16 billion a year in the 2010s.

'We're learning how to live with risk'

According to UN disaster and weather officials, climate change is making weather disasters both stronger and more frequent - but people are also moving into dangerous areas. The same experts also emphasised that better weather warnings and preparedness are lessening the death tolls too.

“The good news is we’re learning how to live with risk and protect ourselves,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, who wasn’t part of the report.

“On the other hand, we’re still making stupid decisions about where we’re putting our infrastructure. ... But it’s OK. We’re not losing lives, we’re just losing stuff."

Hurricane Ida is a good example of heavy damage and what will probably be less loss of life than past major hurricanes, Cutter said. Although, since the Cutter made these comments the death toll in just four northeastern states from Ida has risen to 46. It's still a far cry from the total lost to storms in the past, but the scale of Hurricane Ida has taken people by surprise.

This year, Cutter added, weather disasters “seem to be coming every couple weeks,” with Ida, US wildfires and floods in Germany, China and Tennessee.

“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 WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

The five most expensive weather disasters since 1970 were all storms in the United States, topped by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The five deadliest weather disasters were in Africa and Asia - topped by the Ethiopian drought and famine in the mid-1980s and Cyclone Bhola in Bangladesh in 1970.