- Victims' relatives visit to pray in front of Okawa Elementary School where 74 of the 108 students died in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in Ishinomaki, northern Japan Thursday, April 28, 2011. Ceremonies were held on the 49th day after the disaster, a traditional Buddhist date to honor the dead. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)
Even though we're barely halfway in, 2011 has stolen the dubious distinction of being the most expensive year for natural disasters in recorded history. That's according to a statement released yesterday by German insurer/reinsurer Munich Re, which does this sort of grim tally regularly.
A Bunyanesque grab bag of catastrophes makes 2011 the "highest-ever loss year on record," with about $265 billion in economic damages by the end of June. That mountainous figure whups the $220 billion of the previous costliest year, 2005, which welcomed in the amazingly destructive Hurricane Katrina. It's also five times greater than the first-half-year average for the last 10 years.
The Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11 was responsible for driving the current figure up so high, but disasters worldwide all played their respective parts. And the role of climate change in these disasters should not be discounted, according to Peter Höppe, head of the company's Geo Risks Research. “One factor that stood out was that this year saw the highest sea temperatures ever measured off the coast of Australia, which are contributors to these weather extremes," he said. "Although this is linked to La Niña, temperatures were higher than in previous La Niña years.”
Here are some of the insurer's findings:
• The natural disasters so far (355) are fewer than the past decade's average (390), but their magnitude has been greater. The king of 2011's catastrophes, the 9.0-magnitude earthquake off of Honshu, inflicted an economic uppercut of $210 billion. It is the single most expensive natural disaster known to humans, exceeding Katrina's $125 billion price tag. And with 15,500 lives lost, its human toll is immeasurable.
• The Feb. 22 quake in Christchurch, New Zealand, cost the economy some $20 billion. Explains Munich Re: "This was due to the fact that the ground motion was amplified by the reflection of seismic waves off an extinct volcano complex situated nearby.... Moreover, buildings that had sustained damage in September 2010 were now completely destroyed by the tremors."
• The U.S. tornado outbreaks this spring, which contributed loads to the year's overall twister count of about 1,600, also did significant harm. Two severe outbreaks at the end of April and the third week of May drew economic blood in the order of $15 billion. The insurer blames 2011's rampant tornado activity partly on the effects of La Nina. The climate pattern allowed "atmospheric disturbances from the northwest [to] recurrently move over the central states of the USA and meet humid warm air in more southerly and easterly regions," priming the skies for twisters.
• Widespread flooding in Australia rang the world's economic register to the tune of $7 billion. Cyclone Yasi chipped in with $2 billion in damages to Queensland. Overall, it sucked to be Australian this year.