30 December 2009

Munich Re's list of the largest disasters of 2009

Posted by Dave Petley

The reinsurance giant Munich Re releases annual statistics on the losses from natural catastrophes each year. They released the data for 2009 yesterday, presumably banking on the balance of probabilities that there would be no more major events in the three days left of the year. The release is available here:


Overall results

The news for 2009 is good, with no disasters causing mass (i.e. >10,000) fatalities. There list of the top ten events in terms of fatalities is as follows (NB using the logical European style date format of dd.mm.yyyy):

  • 30.09/1.10.2009: Indonesia: Earthquakes, 1,195 deaths
  • 26-30.09.2009: South East Asia, East Asia: Typhoon Ketsana, 694 deaths
  • 07-10.08.2009: China, Philippines, Taiwan: Typhoon Morakot, 614 deaths
  • 03-14.10.2009: South East Asia, East Asia: Typhoon Parma, 469 deaths
  • 25-27.05.2009: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India: Cyclone Aila, 320 deaths
  • 29.09.-15.10.2009: India: Floods, 300 deaths
  • 06.04.2009: Italy: Earthquakes, 295 deaths
  • 21.08-15.09.2009: India: Floods, 223 deaths
  • Aug-Sep 2009: West Africa, Central Africa: Floods, 215 deaths
  • 04-13.11.2009 El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, USA: Hurricane Ida, 204 deaths

Two aspects of these statistics are particularly interesting. First, the lack of a really large event is pleasing, but is probably no more than a serendipitous lack of a large earthquake in a populated area and limited numbers of large land-falling tropical cyclones, especially in the Atlantic basin. Second, the top five events were all associated with large numbers of landslide fatalities, most notably perhaps typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, the landslides triggered by the Indonesian earthquake and the multiple slides in the Philippines caused by typhoon Parma.

Geographical distribution
The geographical spread of these larger events is quite wide, including SE Asia, E. Asia, S. Asia, Africa, Europe and Central America. However, probably the most interesting aspect of this entire release is a map of showing the location of all the natural catastrophes that have occurred through the year:

There are several things to note here. First, you may well have spotted that the highest density of catastrophes appears to have occurred in the United States, Europe and China. This of course reflects the vulnerability of countries with large asset values to geophysical and meteorological processes. Second, the distribution of the event types is quite varied. The climatological events are mostly concentrated in the USA and Australia; Europe and N. America is mostly affected by storms, whilst in Asia the events are primarily floods. Africa probably has far fewer catastrophes than most people would expect.

Economic Losses
Economic losses were also lower than in previous years at $50 billion, compared with $200 billion in 2008. The largest loss-inducing event was a winter storm that affected N. Spain and France in late January, inducing losses of $5.1 billion. The USA was affected by four of the ten events that caused the highest costs in terms of losses.

Climate Change
The effects of climate change on disaster losses is very complex issue. I am increasingly persuaded by the argument that there is now a strong climate change signal in the loss data, primarily due to increased precipitation intensities and increased intensities of the largest tropical cyclones, both of which are supported by strong scientific evidence that has been subjected to peer review. Interestingly, Munich Re are also pretty clear on this point:

‘Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re Board member responsible for global reinsurance business, drew attention to the marked increase in major weather-related natural catastrophes worldwide since 1950, the number now having more or less tripled. Economic losses from weather-related natural catastrophes in the period since 1980 totalled approximately US$ 1,600 bn (in original values). “Climate change probably already accounts for a significant share. In the light of these facts, it is very disappointing that no breakthrough was achieved at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. At Munich Re, we look closely at a multitude of risks and how best to handle them. Risks that change in the course of time are especially hazardous. Climate change is just such a risk of change.”

Losses caused by climate change will continue to increase in the future. Jeworrek: “We need as soon as possible an agreement that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions because the climate reacts slowly and what we fail to do now will have a bearing for decades to come.”‘

In the next few days I will review landslide events both for 2009 and for the “noughties”, and also the major, game-changing disasters of the last decade.