Weather disasters soar in number and cost over past 50 years

Weather disasters have increased FIVE-fold over the last 50 years and killed an average of 115 people a day, sobering UN report reveals

  • UN’s weather agency releases report on the scale of disasters in the last 50 years
  • Weather disasters are now causing seven times more damage than in the 1970s
  • But deaths decreased almost three-fold due to improved disaster management

Weather-related disasters such as Hurricane Ida are striking four to five times more often than they did 50 years ago, a sobering UN report warned today. 

Destructive events including storms, flooding and drought are causing seven times more damage than in the 1970s, but they’re killing far fewer people, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). 

In the 1970s and 1980s, these events killed an average of about 170 people a day worldwide, but in the 2010s that dropped to about 40 per day.

The WMO’s report looks at more than 11,000 weather disasters between 1970 and 2019, based on data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.

A disaster related to a weather, climate or water hazard occurred every day on average over the past 50 years – killing 115 people and causing $202 million (£146 million) in losses daily, it found.  

In total, just over 2 million deaths and $3.64 trillion (£2.64 trillion) in losses were attributed to such catastrophes.

The report follows Hurricane Ida and drought-worsened wildfires in the US, as well as catastrophic floods in mainland Europe this summer.

Embers fly from a tree as the Caldor Fire burns along Highway 50 in Eldorado National Forest, California, today. A new report from the United Nations weather agency finds the world is getting several times more weather disasters than in the 1970s

Men work to clear debris from their storage unit that was destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Houma, Louisiana, on Monday


The number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the 50-year period, driven by climate change, more extreme weather and improved reporting. 

But thanks to improved early warnings and disaster management, the number of deaths decreased almost three-fold.

Between 1970 and 2019, there were more than 11 000 reported disasters attributed to these hazards globally, with just over 2 million deaths and $3.64 trillion in losses. 

From 1970 to 2019, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50 per cent of all disasters, 45 per cent of all reported deaths and 74 per cent of all reported economic losses. 

‘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 Professor Petteri Taalas in the new report’s foreword.

‘That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America. 

‘We have more water vapour in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. 

‘The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms.’

From 1970 to 2019, weather, climate and water hazards accounted for 50 per cent of all disasters, 45 per cent of all reported deaths and 74 per cent of all reported economic losses. More than 91 per cent of these deaths occurred in developing countries. 

Despite the worrying findings, Professor Taalas added that ‘we are better than ever before at saving lives’ due to improved multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster management methods, although some of the hardest hit developing countries are yet to benefit from these systems.   

‘The good news is that we have been able to minimise the amount of casualties once we have started having growing amount of disasters – heatwaves, flooding events, drought, and especially … intense tropical storms like Ida, which has been hitting recently Louisiana and Mississippi in the United States,’ Professor Taalas said.

‘But the bad news is that the economic losses have been growing very rapidly and this growth is supposed to continue.’

The WMO report looked at all decades separately, as well as the entire 50-year period as a whole.

According to the findings, between 1970 and 1979, the world averaged about only 711 reported weather disasters a year.

But by 2000 to 2009, this figure had skyrocketed to 3,536 a year, or nearly 10 a day, before falling slightly in the 2010s to 3,165, the report said.

Meanwhile, the total number of deaths during the 50-year time period was just over 2 million (2,064,292) – and the 1980s accounted for the highest deaths in a single decade (667,000). 

In comparison, the 1970s accounted for 556,000 deaths, the 1990s 329,000 deaths, the 2000s also 329,000 deaths and the 2010s 185,000 deaths. 

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 two million deaths are in what the UN considers developing nations, while nearly 60 per cent of the economic damage occurred in richer countries. 

Graphs show the number of reported deaths and economic losses during the 50-year period (from 1970 to 2019)

As for total economic losses, the 2010s was by far the mostly costly period – weather disasters during the decade cost $1.381 trillion (£1 trillion). 

This compared to 175.4 billion (£127 billion) in the 1970s, when adjusted to 2019 dollars, WMO found.

Three of the costliest 10 disasters occurred in 2017 – hurricanes Harvey ($96.9 billion), Maria ($69.4 billion) and Irma ($58.2 billion). 

These three hurricanes alone accounted for 35 per cent of the total economic losses of the top 10 disasters around the world from 1970 to 2019, the report said. 

The Caldor Fire burns as a chairlift sits motionless at the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort in Eldorado National Forest, California, on August 29, 2021. The main buildings at the ski slope’s base survived as the main fire front passed

A woman throws away rubbish in the centre of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, after heavy rainfall turned tiny streams into raging torrents across parts of western Germany and Belgium, July 19, 2021

What’s driving the destruction is the fact more people are moving into dangerous areas as climate change is making weather disasters stronger and more frequent, UN disaster and weather officials said.

Meanwhile, better weather warnings and preparedness are lessening the death toll.

‘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 was not 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.’ 

A separate UN report published last month said that if temperatures continue to rise, there could be devastating effects on Earth, including a dramatic loss of sea-life, an ice-free Arctic and more regular ‘extreme’ weather

Drought victims sit on the ground at the refugee camp camp in Bati, on the southwestern edge of Ethopia’s Danakil Desert area, November 1984

Ruined homes and field are shown in this aerial view in the aftermath of the cyclone that hit the Bay of Bengal in East Pakistan, November 1970

Hurricane Ida is a good example of heavy damage and what will probably be less loss of life than past major hurricanes, Cutter said.

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

The five most expensive weather disasters since 1970 were all storms in the US, 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.



1. Ethiopia drought (1983) – 300,000

2. Bangladesh storm (Bhola, 1970) – 300,000

3. Sudan drought (1983) – 150,000

4. Bangladesh storm (Gorky, 1991) – 138,866 

5. Myanmar storm (Nargis, 2008) – 138,366

6. Ethiopia drought (1973) – 100,000

7. Mozambique drought (1981) – 100,000

8. Russia extreme temperatures (2010) – 55,736

9. Venezuela flood (1999) – 30,000

10.  Bangladesh flood (1974) – 28,700

Economic losses (in US$ billion)

1. Hurricane Katrina (US, 2005) – 163.61

2. Hurricane Harvey (US, 2017) – 96.94

3. Hurricane Maria (US, 2017) – 69.39

4. Hurricane Irma (US, 2017) – 58.16

5. Hurricane Sandy (US, 2012) – 54.47

6. Hurricane Andrew (US, 1991) – 48.27

7. China flood (1998) – 47.02

8. Thailand (2011) – 45.46

9. Hurricane Ike (US, 2008) – 35.63

10. North Korea flood (1995) – 25.17 

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