2008 natural disasters cause record loss of life, damage

Published 31 December 2008

More than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding; overall global losses totaled about $200 billion, with uninsured losses totaling $45 billion

The year has been one of the most devastating ever in terms of natural disasters, one of the world’s biggest re-insurance companies has said. Munich Re said the impact of the disasters was greater than in 2007 in both human and economic terms. The company suggested climate change was boosting the destructive power of disasters like hurricanes and flooding. It has called for stricter curbs on emissions to prevent further uncontrollable weather scenarios. Although there were fewer “loss-producing events” in 2008 than in the previous year, the impact of natural disasters was higher, said Munich Re in its annual assessment. More than 220,000 people died in events like cyclones, earthquakes and flooding, the most since 2004, the year of the Asian tsunami.

Meanwhile, overall global losses totaled about $200 billion, with uninsured losses totaling $45 billion, about 50 percent more than in 2007. This makes 2008 the third most expensive year on record, after 1995, when the Kobe earthquake struck Japan, and 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina in the United States.

Torsten Jeworrek of Munich Re said the pattern continued a long-term trend already observed. “Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes,” he said.

Asia was the continent worst hit by natural disasters in 2008, Munich Re reported. Cyclone Nargis in Burma killed an estimated 130,000 people and devastated much of the low-lying Irrawaddy Delta region, while the earthquake which struck China’s Sichuan province in May left an estimated 70,000 dead and millions homeless. Munich Re said the losses of $85 billion made Sichuan the second most expensive earthquake after Kobe.

Although Nargis and the Sichuan quake brought the biggest cost in terms of human lives, the economic losses were mostly uninsured. The most expensive single event in 2008 was Hurricane Ike, which brought $30 billion in losses. It was one of five major hurricanes in the North Atlantic over the year, which saw a total of sixteen tropical storms. In addition, roughly 1,700 tornadoes across the United States caused several billion dollars of damage, as did periods of low pressure weather activity in Europe.

Munich Re quoted World Meteorological Organization (WMO) figures showing that 2008 was the tenth warmest year since reliable records began, meaning that the ten warmest years on record all occurred in the past twelve years. “It is now very probable that the progressive warming of the atmosphere is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity,” said Prof Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research. “The logic is clear: when temperatures increase there is more evaporation and the atmosphere has a greater capacity to absorb water vapor, with the result that its energy content is higher. The weather machine runs into top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses.”

The company said world leaders must put in place “effective and binding rules on CO2 emissions” to curb climate change and ensure that “future generations do not have to live with weather scenarios that are difficult to control.” “If we delay too long, it will be very costly for future generations,” said Jeworrek.