In a Year Rife With "Natural" Disasters, Much of the Fault Lies With Us

By Andrew Moseman | December 21, 2010 4:31 pm

Planet earthIt’s beginning to look a lot like… self-inflicted doom.

This week Associated Press reporters tallied the toll of the year in natural disasters, and it added up to some depressing results. Around the world—in Haiti and Chile earthquakes, in Pakistani floods, in Russian heat waves—nature unleashed its fury in extreme fashion in 2010, the AP says, and humans made it worse through our own actions.

“It just seemed like it was back-to-back and it came in waves,” said Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. It handled a record number of disasters in 2010. “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.” [AP]

At least 250,000 people died in natural disasters this year, up from just 15,000 last year. But, the AP’s Seth Bornstein argues, this isn’t just natural variability.

For one thing, there are the avoidable problems of not doing enough to prepare for the inevitable appearance of disaster. The 2010 death toll is skewed so high this year because of the Haiti earthquake in January that killed most of the people in that quarter-million group. There’s nothing to be done about the shifts of tectonic plates, but the death toll skyrocketed because so many poor Haitians were living in such poorly built dwellings. The more powerful Chilean earthquake, by contrast, occurred in a place with better-built structures and killed fewer than a thousand. While in Pakistan, having so many homes in the flood zone exacerbated the damage when the monsoons came in July.

The second avoidable source of calamity, of course, is anthropogenic climate change. For Bornstein, some of 2010’s calamities certainly fit the profile of being affected by a warming world:

The excessive amount of extreme weather that dominated 2010 is a classic sign of man-made global warming that climate scientists have long warned about. They calculate that the killer Russian heat wave – setting a national record of 111 degrees – would happen once every 100,000 years without global warming. Preliminary data show that 18 countries broke their records for the hottest day ever. “These (weather) events would not have happened without global warming,” said Kevin Trenberth, chief of climate analysis for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. [AP]

At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Anthony Wood suggests that the Russian heat could be linked to the misbehaving jet stream, another possible place where the hand of humans could be implicated in our own destruction.

Researchers say they have seen a trend that makes sense in a warmer world. Overall warming would tend to move air-mass battlegrounds closer to the poles, thus displacing the jets. Now scientists are trying to answer critical questions. Are the jets responding to human activity? Are these movements part of natural cycles? [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Now we’re back at the big question: Are we connecting extreme weather events to climate change, or confusing the two?  While the complexity of the planetary climate system makes a dubious proposition to point at one event and say “There, that’s climate change,” climate shifts can make certain outcomes—like extreme droughts or snowstorms—more likely. At a certain point, those individual events coalesce into a pattern. And for the scientists AP interviewed, the pattern is clear: They see more frequent extreme weather events, which fits the expectations for a warming planet.

That’s why the people who study disasters for a living say it would be wrong to chalk 2010 up to just another bad year. “The Earth strikes back in cahoots with bad human decision-making,” said a weary Debarati Guha Sapir, director for the World Health Organization’s Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. “It’s almost as if the policies, the government policies and development policies, are helping the Earth strike back instead of protecting from it. We’ve created conditions where the slightest thing the Earth does is really going to have a disproportionate impact.” [AP]

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Image: iStockphoto

[h/t Charlie Petit]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Matt B.

    “Anthropogenic” is a misnomer. the suffix “-genic” means “making”, not “made by”. Hydrogen makes water, carcinogens make carcinomas, anthropogens make people. It would be a really weird phenomenon if climate change caused people to pop into existence.

  • Meme Mine

    The Climate Change believers were the bible thumpers and narrow minded flat earthers, not the deniers. And as a former believer, I can say we denied ancient climates, denied denier science, moralized science and made a virtue out of no evidence. And our “unstoppable warming” was our cowardly death threat and the spear of fear held at our children’s backs for 24 years of needless fear mongering. If we selfish Darth Vader’s of CO2 environMENTALism had spent as much time loving the planet, as we did hating humanity, we wouldn’t see this splitting of environmenalism and how it is also dragging down all of progressivism with it.
    Drop the CO2 and respect the planet anew.
    System Change, not Climate Change.

    Still not convinced? Consider this. If you still think promising to lower the seas with taxes is sustainable for another 24 years with we the voters, YOU are the new denier.
    This was OUR Iraq War and climate change has done to science, politicians and journalists, what nasty priests did to religion.
    Let’s be real Liberals again. Liberals who doubt, question and challenge authority. Not obedient Greenzis who act more like environmental neocons of fear mongering instead of being lovers of the planet.
    Get ahead of the curve everyone. If we don’t back off of the CO2 mistake soon, we could be out of power for a decade.
    Oh, and I’d say stop scaring my kids but even they are laughing now. The next generation won’t be so kind to the groundless and irresponsible CO2 death threats.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Dear Matt, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropogenic

    Dear Meme, “environMENTALism,” is a turn-off to your argument. Also Greenzis, equating the green movement with folks who brought about the deaths of 6 million people, brings you into Godwinian territory.

    You do make some good points though, about doubt, questioning and challenging authority. And especially about arguing these points to death instead of actually doing something.

    We’ll naturally back off the CO2. It will happen because of Peak Oil. We’ll run out of CO2 to pump into the atmosphere. It’s not something I’m worried about. Every time some paradigm fails, a new, unexpected one rises to take its place. Like the advent of oil in the first place.

    I believe that this global warming phenomenon is natural. Just as everything man does is natural, because you can’t escape the system. We have an overpopulation problem and a resource usage problem, and that problem is slowly correcting itself through natural processes. Plan accordingly or you will be left by the wayside like 99% of the rest of evolution’s products. :)

  • Dr. Tom

    The sick ,sick, science departments have been had, Humans have created no global warming at all, its a very sad time in human history when a relatively small cabal can manipulate the information and sequester any proper rebuttal to the so,so obvious backwards science logic as proofs.
    Easy proof is available from our group,but we barely survive attack everyday,and of course get no help from the Government,who are involved.(Just a certain Cabal)

  • Ozonator aka Robert Rhodes

    The author(s) of the article may wish to amend the original to include the following predicted chunk of global warming –

    With profound condolences, “A powerful earthquake struck a sparsely populated district of southeastern Iran, killing at least 11 people, injuring at least 40 and damaging 1,800 homes … downed phone lines and landslides … Almost exactly seven years ago in the same region, a catastrophic 6.6 earthquake struck the nearby city of Bam, killing more than 25,000 people and destroying … one of Iran’s most treasured archaeological sites” (“6.5 earthquake kills at least 11 in Iran”; By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times; latimes.com, 12/21/10). The killer 6.5 is within both the 7+ in the 2-week model and the 6+ in the 3rd week of the 39th Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model (12/5 – 11/10). “A). … 1). With apologies and condolences, extinction events may start to unfold from earthquakes in Central and Northeast Asia due to the free global warming dumping by the legal international terrorists aka extremist Republicans and Christians. … from the EssoKochs and their willing accomplices with hundreds about to be killed/injured. … B). … the Giulaino – Gansu Model … of extreme earthquake warnings among tectonic energy lines with individual predictions for regions (magnitude in Richters) are: … Iran (7+)” (“GBRWE 12/12 – 18/10”s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 12/12 – 18/10, 12/11/10). “A). … 1). With apologies and condolences, extinction events may start to unfold from earthquakes to solar flares due to the free global warming dumping by the legal international terrorists aka extremist Republicans and Christians. … from the EssoKochs and their willing accomplices with hundreds about to be killed/injured. … this is the 1st week of 5 for all listed under the 39th Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model (12/5 – 11/10) … B). … the specifics of the Giulaino – Gansu Model (11/28 – 12/4/10) … with individual predictions for regions (magnitude in Richters) are: … the 39th Persian – Band Aceh – Bhamo Model (12/5 – 11/10): … Iran (6+)” (“GBRWE 12/5 – 11/10”s Extreme Planetary Warnings for Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Solar/Terrestrial Flares from Human Activities”; Robert Rhodes, Supplemental; GBRWE 12/5 – 11/10, 12/4/10).

    To be fair an balanced, the following have yet to predict what type of non-human meat will grace their next free esso-lunch as any proof of any expertise and failing to put “Christ” back in Christmas: Meme Mine, nick, Biblical Profit, and Dr. Tom auditioning to be paypals like “‘… promoting ‘inaction’—‘Skeptics will proudly celebrate … Climate Depot takes full responsibility for the fate of your children and grandchildren from any future man-made climate catastrophe” (“Australian PM warns skeptics ‘are too ‘dangerous to ignore’ and are ‘holding the world to ransom’”, By Marc ‘Eskimo cyst’ Morano, Climate Depot Editorial”; editorial abuse by Joseph D’Aleo; icecap.us, 11/6/09). And, “World English Dictionary … anthropogenic  … created by people or caused by human activity: anthropogenic pollution” (dictionary.reference.com).

  • Ben

    This is a pretty amazing gallery of crazy in this comment section.

  • s

    Dr Tom – we are in the dark ages of physics. literally. too many are pursuing “dark matter/energy” and not enough are studying basic physics of motion, energy and matter. It is no wonder that people are buying into this global warming thing. i remember in a recent Discover post on GW a couple of weeks ago. Someone actually ARGUED that E does not equal mc2. I could not believe my eyes! Another suggested that in the IR spectrum, CO2 was opaque but only in 1 direction. They truly beleived that IR from the Sun will pass through CO2 clouds, but because it’s opaque, IR will be retained by these same clouds and warm up the air because it won’t go back into space. Uni directional C02…. *heavy sigh*

    It truly breaks your heart. After all the advances we have made in our understanding of the universe around us, a large portion of the population are, and to quote a witty post above, “flat earthers”.

    Ben – too funny!!

  • Darius2025

    I suggest we get back to the basics and first figure out what we have never been able to in the first place. I propose the next decade be spent on studying gravity… and comming up with a reasonable mechanic behind it finally. That’s it… I’m going back to school.

    P.S. All sorts of crazy up in here. The way i see it… ‘global warming’ is natural, assuming of course, that humans are a natural occurance on this planet. However, that isn’t necessarily true.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Oh wow. Poe has been cloned. Or stupidity is infectious. Or eggnog kills brain cells. Wonder how many of the commenters above watch Faux News? (that’s a reference to yet another poll that finds those viewers are the least informed of all news viewers/readers and most likely to believe that which just ain’t so).

  • Hydrophilia

    Humans.

    There are several arguments for and against Anthro Climate Change and some of these may be correct (poorly sited weather data collectors, for example). On the other hand, there is an unarguable fact that CO2 is increasing and that we may damage our planet’s ability to provide the ecological services that we depend on.

    On the other hand, it may be that saving energy and reducing carbon use can be cheaper and produce more jobs than the current capital and energy intensive economy we now have. It may be that wise use of our resources would make this whole trade-off idea look silly. (You mean we need to choose between using more energy and possibly poisoning the world or having more jobs and better lives? Gee, how to choose..)

    Then again, it really is complex. We are actually going to need to use our intelligence and wisdom to get through this. And the whole consumer culture, the corporations that are making money from it, their shills (US Chamber of Commerce, anyone?), and the groups that live off of telling us the world is ending (NRA, Sierra Club, etc) will give misleading or false information to make it even harder to make wise decisions.

  • Frank

    The real problem is that semi-educated, semi-literate people feel that they have the expertise to make a judgment about climate change after listening to corporate shills and politically motivated quasi “news” entertainers. Are we supposed take to take the word of someone who’s environmental and climatology experience consists of taking the garbage to the curb once a week, or getting cold and wet when they forget their umbrella? Or should we give more weight to the words of someone who has spent 2/3 of their life studying the environment and weather? When you know nothing about a subject, seek out the experts. When 9 out 10 experts judgements lean towards climate change, I tend to give their arguments more weight than to someone with the educational level of a garden slug, and their source of information of “Faux” news corporation.

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