Natural Disasters on the Rise?
“It is to be feared that extreme events which can be traced to climate change will have increasingly grave consequences in the future. This means that we must reckon with new types of weather risks and greater loss potentials. . . . In accordance with the precautionary principle, we would be well-advised to prepare ourselves for dramatic changes.”—“Topics Geo—Annual Review: Natural Catastrophes 2003.”
PARTS of Europe sweltered during the summer of 2003. The high temperatures contributed to approximately 30,000 deaths in Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. A premonsoon heat wave in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan resulted in 1,500 deaths, while drought and record heat in Australia triggered bushfires that consumed over seven million acres [3 million ha].
According to the World Meteorological Organization, “the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season saw the development of 16 named storms, which is well above the 1944-1996 average of 9.8, but consistent with a marked increase in the annual number of tropical systems since the mid-1990s.” The pattern continued in 2004, which saw devastating hurricanes sweep into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, where they claimed some 2,000 lives and left a trail of destruction.
In 2003, Sri Lanka was hit by a cyclone that caused severe flooding, resulting in at least 250 deaths. In 2004, a record of at least 23 typhoons brewed in the western Pacific. Ten of them hit Japan, where they caused extensive damage and took more than 170 lives. Floods resulting from heavy monsoon rains affected nearly 30 million people in South Asia, especially Bangladesh. Millions were made homeless, almost three million were displaced, and more than 1,300 were killed.
Several powerful earthquakes struck during 2003. On May 21, in Algiers, Algeria, a quake injured 10,000 people and left 200,000 homeless. At 5:26 a.m. on December 26, the earth quaked five miles [8 km] south of the city of Bam in Iran. The magnitude 6.5 quake devastated 70 percent of the city, claimed 40,000 lives, and left more than 100,000 homeless. It was the most lethal natural disaster of the year. It also turned much of Bam’s 2,000-year-old citadel, Arg-e-Bam, into rubble, robbing the region of an economically important tourist attraction.
Exactly one year later, a magnitude 9.0 quake occurred just off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, spawning by far the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history. The killer waves claimed over 200,000 lives and left many more injured, homeless, or both. Even the east coast of Africa, 2,800 miles or more [4,500 km or more] west of the epicenter, came within the tsunamis’ fatal embrace.
Are Darker Clouds on the Horizon?
Are such events a foretaste of what is to come? In regard to weather-related disasters, many scientists believe that human-induced changes in the atmosphere are altering the world’s climate and contributing to more extreme weather. If true, this assessment does not bode well for the future. Adding to the risk, more and more people now live in disaster-prone areas, by choice—or because they have no alternative.
Statistics indicate that 95 percent of all disaster-related deaths occur in developing lands. Wealthy nations, on the other hand, have a lower mortality rate but experience 75 percent of the economic losses. Some insurers even wonder whether their industry can remain solvent under this onslaught of mounting losses.
In the following article, we will examine some of the natural processes that lead to disasters and ways that humans may be adding to their severity. We will also consider whether mankind has the power and the will to effect the changes needed to make the earth a safer home for future generations.
[Picture on page 3]
FRANCE 2003—Summer heat wave in Europe causes 30,000 deaths; Spain hits 112°F. [44.8°C]
[Pictures on page 4, 5]
IRAN 2003—Earthquake in Bam kills 40,000; women mourn relatives at a mass grave
Background and women: © Tim Dirven/Panos Pictures