Weather has been dominating the news cycle the past several days, as much of the U.S. has suffered through record-breaking cold. But while it might seem as if we’ve all been sucked into a polar vortex of weather news, 2013 was punctuated by coverage of major natural disasters like Supertyphoon Haiyan in November, massive floods in India in June and the Category 5 tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma in May. No wonder so many people felt that extreme weather was on the rise.
Except that wasn’t the case—at least not in 2013. The reinsurance company Munich Re came out with its annual assessment of natural disasters, and found that 2013 was an unusually quiet year. Catastrophes like floods and storms claimed more than 20,000 lives around the world, and caused more than $125 billion in damages. While that’s clearly a lot—and the number of deaths from disasters rose over 2012—both figures are well below the 106,000 in deaths and $184 billion in losses that were experienced on average over the past decade. Though the total number of loss-causing catastrophes—880—was above the average over the past 10 years, the damages in both financial and human terms was less. “There was no large-scale natural catastrophe event in 2013,” said Carl Hedde, head of risk accumulation for Munich Re.
But wait a minute. What about Supertyphoon Haiyan, the tropical storm that slammed into the Philippines with record-breaking winds, killing 6,000 people and producing images like this one? Haiyan was a major catastrophe in terms of loss of life and injuries, but less so financially. Haiyan caused overall losses of about $10 billion, only $700 million of which was insured. That made it only the second-most expensive disaster of 2013, after June floods in Central Europe that caused $15.2 billion in overall losses while killing just 25 people. (When it came to insured losses, hailstorms that hit Germany in July were slightly worse, at $3.7 billion.) The discrepancy between those two events is a reminder that the damage caused by extreme weather—in both human and financial terms—often has less to do with the scale of the disaster than the development level of the country where it occurs. That’s the disaster gap in action.
For the U.S., the weather was even less extreme in 2013 than it was globally, thanks mostly to the fact that the Atlantic hurricane season went missing in action. Of the 13 cyclones that formed in the tropical North Atlantic this year, only two—Ingrid and Humberto—reached hurricane strength, and those storms were only category 1. That’s the lowest number of hurricanes to form in the North Atlantic since 1982—and not a single hurricane reached the U.S. mainland. In fact a major hurricane—category 3 or above—hasn’t made landfall in the U.S. since Wilma in 2005, a record hurricane drought. While Sandy in 2012 was a massively large storm that caused over $60 billion in damages—and thus by any definition a major natural disaster—it wasn’t anywhere near strong enough upon landfall to classify as a major hurricane. The drought—which Munich Re’s Peter Hoppe attributed to short-term factors, including unusually dry air and high wind shear—gave insurance companies a financial break. But even as the Atlantic was quiet, the Pacific was having an especially active season for tropical storms, culminating in Haiyan.
More costly in the U.S. were severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, like the ones that leveled the Oklahoma City suburb Moore, which together caused over $5 billion in damages and killed 30 people. Even there, though, the U.S. got off lightly—there were about 900 tornadoes in 2013, significantly below the long-term average of 1,500. Altogether the $12.8 billion in insured losses experienced by the U.S. was less than half the recent average, and for the first time in two decades, the U.S. did not top the list for regional disaster losses, with Europe instead leading the way.
So what can we take from the unextreme weather of 2013? Not much. According to Munich Re the number of loss events—storms, quakes, volcanoes, tsunamis—has been mostly on the increase, from less than 400 in 1980 to more than 800 now. Economic losses from disasters have been increasing, from about $50 billion a year in the 1980s to on average just under $200 billion a year by the last decade, according to a recent World Bank study. But a significant portion of that increase is due not necessarily to stronger or more frequent extreme weather, but global economic growth. The global economy has more than doubled since 1980, which means there’s simply more to lose economically to a hurricane, drought or flood. At the same time global deaths from extreme weather have dropped precipitously, which again is less a factor of the number or intensity of extreme events, so much as it is a result of economic growth. Rich countries are simply better able to withstand extreme weather than poor countries, which is a major reason why Haiyan killed 6,000 people in the Philippines, while Hurricane Katrina—a powerful Category 5 storm—killed less than 2,000 in the U.S. (Greater population density in poor nations plays a role in higher death tolls as well.)
Exactly what impact a warming planet will have on extreme weather isn’t clear. While a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, which can mean more intense rainfall and storms, the most recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change didn’t find strong evidence that tropical storms were increasing in frequency or intensity as the climate changed. Not every scientific study is so sanguine—a 2013 study from hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel predicted that tropical storms would become more both more frequent and more intense. But regardless of the effects of climate change, a growing planet that puts more people and property in the way of storms and floods is one that is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. The unextreme weather of 2013 is almost certainly an outlier.