From Hurricanes To Floods To Wildfires: 2017’s Record Year For Natural Disasters

2017 saw a record number of natural disasters across the globe, all of which affected a number of people and left far-reaching consequences in their aftermath, for both the people directly affected, the futures of their communities, and the insurance industry and economy. These disasters included wildfires, monsoon floods, flash floods, hurricanes, tropical storms, landslides, avalanches, earthquakes, drought-induced famine, coastal flooding due to sea-level rise, and volcanic eruptions. These disasters set a record for damages and losses, with the New York Times reporting that $135 billion USD in insurance losses was sustained, while total overall losses (including uninsured damage) came to $330 billion USD, according to German reinsurer Munich Re Group.

The 2017 North Atlantic hurricane season saw some of the highest damages and consequences for the U.S. and other Caribbean island nations. Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma resulted in total losses of $215 billion USD becoming one of the costliest and most active hurricane seasons to date. Hurricane Harvey caused widespread flooding after dropping up to 34 trillion gallons of water in Houston. Hurricane Maria also caused widespread damage in Puerto Rico, with the death toll estimate at 1000 people and at least one-third of residents still without power.

Record monsoon flooding in South Asia – particularly India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – also caused widespread damage, affecting 41 million people and resulting in an estimated 2000 deaths. These floods triggered landslides, affected access to water, health, and sanitation services, and ruined farmland and crops, prompting fears of food shortages.

Flash flooding in Sierra Leone, Greece, Peru, Japan, Indonesia, Colombia, Nicaragua, and China (among others) as a result of tropical storms often caused dangerous landslides, while sea-level rise caused high-tide nuisance flooding in many coastal towns and cities all over the world.

Wildfires across the globe again caused billions of dollars in damages in the U.S., Chile, Portugal, and South Africa. In the U.S., wildfires burned through more than 9.7 million acres, making 2017 the second worst wildfire season in terms of area.

Earthquakes in Mexico and along the Iran-Iraq border killed an estimated 1000 people in total, while volcanic eruptions in Indonesia and Mexico also caused mass evacuations, flight disruptions, and air pollution.

Lastly, famine in Somalia was exacerbated due to a severe drought that resulted in reduced crop production, poor harvests, and livestock shortages. At the famine’s peak, an estimated six million people faced food and water shortages.

These natural disasters are only a few of the many that occurred across the globe in 2017, in a year of seemingly heightened and record-breaking climate and weather-related disasters. While it can often be difficult to accurately determine whether each natural disaster is a direct result of climate change – often due to lack of data, or else the requirement for more time to collect data – scientists have long predicted that sea levels will continue to rise with the warming of the earth, resulting in high-tide flooding, storm surges, a more active hurricane season, flash flooding, coastal erosion, increased rainfall, and wildfires. These events in turn can cause other disasters such as landslides, famine, and humanitarian crises.

Many disasters rack up billions of dollars worth of damages and seem to affect so many people, because many occur in densely populated areas, and according to Jeff McLeod (director of the Centre for Best Practices, Homeland Security, and Public Safety Division for the National Governors Association in the U.S) many areas – at least in the U.S. – do not have “comprehensive” long term recovery plans, putting communities at risk. Mark Bove, a meteorologist with Munich Re said that more people are also moving to warmer climates “putting them in the path of hurricanes” and California’s wildfires in the U.S. Bove also says that many homes are not being built to withstand today’s – or even the future’s – climate and weather.

The effects of climate change in 2017 were not only felt as natural disasters. In particular, rising sea levels were one of the prominent climate change issues, especially after a large crack in an Antarctic ice shelf steadily began to grow bigger, before a significant portion of the ice shelf broke away in July. At the opposite end of the earth, ice in Greenland is also continuing to melt at a significant rate – around 270 billion tonnes each year – according to the New York Times, who have also found that at this rate, “[Greenland] would contribute about two inches to sea level rise by the end of the century.”

Summer temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere also rose in the last year, compared to previous years, with heat waves across parts of the U.S. and Europe and record high summer temperatures in Asia. Rising temperatures cause longer and more severe droughts which in turn causes consequences for crop production, livestock, water supply levels, and electricity consumption.

The international community’s response to climate change in 2017 was dominated by the Trump Administration’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, becoming one of only two United Nations member states not a part of the agreement. Despite no longer being the single largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, as the New York Times reported, the U.S. is still “responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide that is heating the planet.” Many U.S. businesses, investors, city mayors, and state governors formed a U.S. Climate Alliance, pledging to uphold the goals set by the U.S. in the Paris agreement, but it remains to be seen if these states can make a difference in reducing greenhouse gas emissions without federal government funds or support.

While 2017 was by no means the only year dominated by global natural disasters, it was the costliest for many countries, and saw the largest loss of life and internal displacement of people, as many disasters also fed other crises. Whether the disaster count in 2017 is an outlier or a new average remains to be seen. However, scientists have predicted that as long as temperatures continue to rise, ice continues to melt, and sea levels continue to rise, climate change will continue to drive more extreme weather events and natural disasters, and communities need to be better prepared for these disasters.

Ashika Manu