Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service, Wednesday 07 December 2005
Washington - The world has suffered more than 200 billion dollars in economic losses as a result of weather-related natural disasters over the past year, making 2005 the costliest year on record, according to preliminary estimates released Tuesday by the Munich Re Foundation at the international climate conference in Montreal.
These damages significantly exceeded the previous record of 145 billion dollars set in 2004, according to the Foundation, which is part of Munich Re, one of several leading re-insurance companies that have warned repeatedly over the past decade that global warming posed serious threats to the world's economy.
Of the more than 200 billion dollars in losses this year, more than 70 billion dollars was covered by insurance companies, compared to some 45 billion dollars in damages last year, according to the Foundation.
It said most losses resulted from the unprecedented number and intensity of hurricanes in 2005, particularly Wilma, which hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula; and Katrina, which overwhelmed New Orleans and other coastal areas in the U.S. states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama.
Wilma, the strongest-ever hurricane, according to records dating back to 1850, caused an estimated 15 billion dollars in economic losses, of which about 10 billion dollars was insured, according to the Foundation.
Damages caused by Katrina, the sixth strongest hurricane on record, were significantly greater, however. Estimated losses come to more than 125 billion, of which more than 30 billion dollars was insured, the Foundation said.
"There is a powerful indication from these figures that we are moving from predictions of the likely impacts of climate change to proof that it is already fully underway," said Thomas Loster, the Foundation's director, who added that policy-makers should not only be concerned about the staggering economic loss.
"Above all, these are humanitarian tragedies that show us that, as a result of our impacts on the climate, we are making people and communities everywhere more vulnerable to weather-related natural disasters," he said.
Loster released the Foundation's report at the ongoing 11th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Climate Change Convention, which is addressing what the international community should do after the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement by the world's industrialised countries, with the exception of the United States and Australia, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by about seven percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Most scientists believe that emissions are the main cause of global warming and that they will have to be reduced by 60 percent or more in order to stabilise the atmosphere.
While scientists insist that the increases in financial losses caused by storms may not necessarily be linked to global warming -- increasing populations and economic development in vulnerable coastal areas may be far more important -- a growing number agree that warming is becoming an increasingly significant factor.
Such a notion is bolstered by the occurrence of other highly unusual or even unprecedented weather events recorded during the past year. These suggest the Earth's climate is changing in ways that are generally consistent with predictions by sophisticated computer models about the likely impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have been pumped into the atmosphere in ever-increasing quantities since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
Hurricane Vince, for example, was the first hurricane on record to approach Europe, making landfall in Spain in October. It was the easternmost and northernmost appearance of an Atlantic hurricane on record, effectively mirroring the appearance of Hurricane Catarina off Brazil in March 2004. Catarina was the first hurricane in the South Atlantic on record.
Similarly, at the end of November, Tropical Storm Delta hit the Canary Islands to devastating effect. It was the first tropical storm to ever hit the islands.
And in July, a weather station in Mumbai recorded 944 mm of rain in 24 hours, the greatest and most intense precipitation event ever recorded in India.
The number of tropical storms broke all records in 2005, according to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi. As of last week, there had been 26 storms, or five more than the previous record of 21. Of the 26, 16 reached hurricane force.
Scientific models have predicted an increase in the intensity of storms as the atmosphere -- and the temperatures of the seas -- became warmer. Tropical storms and hurricanes derive most of their energy from warm waters.
While scientists agree that it is impossible to link global warming to the frequency and intensity of hurricanes over a one- or two-year period, recent studies have shown that storms have indeed become more intense over the past several decades.
In August, for example, Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) published a paper in the British scientific weekly Nature which found that hurricanes in the Atlantic and North Pacific had roughly doubled in power over 30 years.
In September, a group of meteorologists published a study in Science weekly which found that, while the frequency of hurricanes had significantly increased over the past 35 years, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes -- the most powerful -- had increased by 80 percent over that period.
To many scientists, these studies provide additional evidence of a link between warming seas, to which warmer atmospheric temperatures contribute, and hurricane intensity.
Others insist, however, that the 35-year period is still too short a time period to reach any conclusion, because such changes may be tied to other natural "oscillations" involving currents or salinity. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, hurricane activity was significantly greater than in the three decades that followed.
In his remarks to the climate conference, Loster stressed that economic losses attributable to weather-related disasters have risen much more steeply than those caused by earthquakes, according to records since 1950.
"We do not want to estimate the human tragedy of earthquakes like the recent one in Pakistan which can kill tens of thousands of people a year," he said.
"But our findings indicate that it is the toll of weather-related disasters that are the ones on the rise."