Goodnight Irene (and Other Natural Disasters)

Deaths due to extreme weather are way, way down.


More than 40 people in the northeastern United States died during Hurricane Irene. Many more lost their homes. Thousands were flooded and more were without electricity. Tropical Storm Lee continued the havoc, including forcing over 100,000 from their homes in the Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, area when the Susquehanna River broke its banks.

Earlier this year, a series of tornadoes wrought death and devastation from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Joplin, Missouri. Wildfires have burned over 3.5 million acres in Texas. And across the world in Somalia, tens of thousands of children are reported to have died of starvation and millions of people are acutely malnourished following a drought.

Some blame the extreme weather on human induced climate change. In a September 7 press release issued by Climate Communication, Jerry Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, says, "Small global average temperature rises lead to big changes in extreme weather….As a result, we're now seeing extreme heat events that were once rare occurring more frequently."

Others dispute that. In a forum on extreme weather and climate change organized by Yale University earlier this year, the University of Colorado's Roger Peilke, Jr. pointed out that "data on tornadoes, large-scale river floods (in unaltered river basins), and…hurricanes shows no evidence of trends in the direction of more extreme events." The costs of such events are increasing, Pielke explains, not because weather is getting worse but because people are building increasingly valuable properties in places likely to get hit by storms and similar events.

A new Reason Foundation study adds more reason for optimism. In "Wealth and Safety: The Amazing Decline in Deaths from Extreme Weather in an Era of Global Warming, 1900–2010," Indur Goklany shows that global deaths from extreme weather events have fallen by over 90 percent since the 1920s, in spite of a more than hundredfold increase in reported incidence of such events. Goklany uses data from the Emergency Events database of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (EM-DAT). To be entered into EM-DAT, one or more of the following criteria must be fulfilled: Ten or more people reported killed; 100 or more people reported affected; declaration of a state of emergency; and a call for international assistance.

Droughts, and floods have long caused widespread death. In the 1920s, for instance, extreme weather was responsible for 485,000 deaths per year. But due to technological developments and related economic growth, deaths have fallen precipitously, even while the world's population has risen. Between 2000 and 2010 there was an average of only 36 recorded deaths per year from extreme weather.

Deaths from storms, including hurricanes and tornadoes, spiked as recently as the 1970s, when there were 10 deaths a year per million people. Between 2000 and 2010, storms being blamed for just two deaths a year per million people.

Floods were to blame for 30 percent of the deaths during the 1900-2010, making them the second most deadly extreme weather category. The death rate for floods topped out in the 1930s at 204 deaths a year per million people. Deaths from floods have fallen by over 98 percent since then and there was an average of approximately one flood death per year per million people from 2000 to 2010.

Droughts were the most deadly extreme weather category between 1900 and 2010, responsible for over 60 percent of extreme weather deaths during that time.The death rate from droughts peaked in the 1920s, when there were 235 deaths a year per million people. Since then, the death rate has fallen by 99.9 percent. Global food production advancements such as new crops, improved fertilizer, irrigation, and pesticides, combined with society's better ability to move food and medical supplies, have reduced the number of deaths in times of severe drought.

The famine in Somalia, like most famines in Africa for the past 40 years, is almost entirely the result of politics, not lack of food. After decades of alternating autocratic political elites, clan rule, and anarchy—and years during which Western governments have tried to introduce centralized government by force (using Ethiopian and African Union troops as a proxy)—two thirds of Somalis are subsistence farmers, producing just enough food to live using agricultural technologies that are hundreds of years old. When droughts occur, as they do periodically in the Horn of Africa, people become reliant on aid and rulers then cynically use their power to restrict food aid as a means of controlling the population. In late July, as Western food aid started arriving, Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgent group that gained support in reaction to the Western-backed government, blocked food aid from areas it controlled. The Transitional Federal Government responded with a renewed attack on Shabab, which led to a widening of the conflict to other smaller groups, leaving famine victims worse off. In the 1980s, Mengistu Haile Miriam did something similar in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has also used similar tactics to weaken opposition to his disastrous rule.

While deaths directly attributable to weather have been declining, researchers are simultaneously providing a far more accurate recording of extreme weather events. The Reason Foundation study shows that the average number of recorded extreme weather events increased from 2.5 per year in the 1920s to 8.5 in the 1940s to 350 per year for the period 2000-2010. While climate-change alarmists would like to attribute the increase to anthropogenic global warming, the increase is almost certainly due mainly to other factors including higher population densities (which increases the likelihood that any disaster kills more than 10 or affects more than 100 people); better communications (which means disasters in remote places are more likely to be reported); and stronger incentives to declare a state of emergency or call for international assistance (since by so doing, government aid and charity are more likely to be forthcoming).

While we can't control the weather (yet), overall we are doing an incredibly good job of minimizing the death it causes. As Goklany notes in his paper, "Despite the intense media coverage of storms and climate change's prominent role in political debates, humanity is coping far better with extreme weather events than it is with other much more important health and safety problems."

That's worth remembering the next time a hurricane makes landfall or a river jumps its banks.

Julian Morris is vice president of research at the Reason Foundation.