Disasters cost the world a hefty $160 billion in 2018 and climate change was a factor in the final tally, a new report says.
On Tuesday, German Insurance company Munich Re released its annual report estimating the cost of disasters that include weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes, wildfires, tsunamis and earthquakes.
Globally, damage from disasters amounted to $160 billion, which is less than the $360 billion in damage reported by the company in 2017 but still higher than the $140 billion long-term average. It was the fourth-costliest year since 1980 in terms of insured losses.
A third of that total ($80 billion)came from just four events in the United States. Three of those disasters were the costliest in the world, including California’s Camp Fire, which was the costliest disaster of 2018 at $16.5 billion.
The wildfire began on Nov. 8 and became California’s deadliest fire with 86 fatalities. It consumed nearly the entire town of Paradise, burned more than 253 square miles and destroyed more than 18,800 structures.
The report noted that California saw its worst-ever wildfire season in 2018 for the second year running.
“There are clear indications of the influence that man-made climate change has had on devastating wildfires in California, which, like last year, again caused billions in losses in 2018,” the report said.
Hurricane Michael was the second costliest disaster of 2018. The storm that made landfall on the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10 was the fourth strongest ever to hit the U.S. It killed 60 people, including 45 in the U.S., and decimated the town of Mexico Beach with its 155 mph sustained winds and deadly storm surge. Munich Re estimates the storm cost $16 billion.
Hurricane Florence, which tore into the Carolinas with heavy rain in September, was 2018’s third costliest disaster at $14 billion.
Japan was particularly hard-hit with disasters as well in 2018, including at least seven typhoons that either skirted or hit the country’s islands. The costliest was Typhoon Jebi with overall losses of $12.5 billion, making it the fourth costliest worldwide.
Europe’s costliest disaster was a sustained drought and heat wave that cost $3.9 billion.
The report notes that some 10,400 people lost their lives in 2018 as a result of natural catastrophes, which is below the yearly average of 53,000 deaths over the past 30 years.
The deadliest disaster of 2018 was the earthquake-triggered tsunami that took the Indonesian city of Palu by surprise on Sept. 28. An estimated 2,100 people died in that disaster.
Climate Change’s Impacts
Munich Re notes that human-caused climate change is playing a role in the devastation felt worldwide from disasters.
“2018 saw several major natural catastrophes with high insured losses,” said Munich Re board member Torsten Jeworrek. “These included the unusual phenomenon of severe tropical cyclones occurring both in the U.S. and Japan while autumn wildfires devastated parts of California. Such massive wildfires appear to be occurring more frequently as a result of climate change.”
Jeworrek noted that action is “urgently needed on building codes and land use to help prevent losses.”
Ernst Rauch, head of climate and geosciences at Munich Re, said the “losses from wildfires in California have risen dramatically in recent years.”
“At the same time, we have experienced a significant increase in hot, dry summers, which has been a major factor in the formation of wildfires,” said Rauch. “Many scientists see a link between these developments and advancing climate change. This is compounded by man-made factors such as burgeoning settlements in areas close to forests at risk from wildfire. The casualties and losses are immense, and measures to prevent fires and damage are vital.”
Wildfires are not the only disasters linked to climate change. Studies have also linked global warming with more frequent and deadlier extreme weather events.
According to a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the risk of a Hurricane Katrina-level storm surge has risen two to seven times for every 1.8-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature.
Scientists say the number of hurricanes may decrease in the years to come because of climate change, but stronger Category 4 or 5 storms will likely become more frequent, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes.
“A review of existing studies lead us to conclude that it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes,” NOAA says. “The hurricane model also projects that the lifetime maximum intensity of Atlantic hurricanes will increase by about 5 percent during the 21st century.”
Climate change can also impact the amount of rainfall that drops from a hurricane or weather system because a warming planet enables the atmosphere to hold more moisture.
“We think that Harvey type of rainfalls will become noticeably more frequent as the century goes on,” Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, told the Los Angeles Times.
Hurricane Florence’s heavy rains over the Carolinas falls in line with this prediction.
The Munich Re report also notes that while the total number of fatalities was lower in 2018, the percentage of overall deaths attributed to flooding events jumped “significantly” from 14 percent to 35 percent.
Heat waves like the ones experienced in Europe last year will likely become commonplace in the decades to come, scientists say.
A study released in August 2017 by the European Commission suggested parts of the world may soon experience super heat waves if global warming continues unchecked, with temperatures reaching more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.