Natural Disasters and Climate Change Fast Facts

The Problem:

According to natural scientists, climate change is intensifying natural disasters like wildfires and floods, making them increasingly devastating. An increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will probably boost temperatures over most land surfaces, an important ingredient for many disasters, though the exact change will vary regionally. Hurricanes in the Atlantic are so numerous that there are not enough letters in the Latin alphabet to name them all. Fires in California torched more than 4 million acres, smashing the state’s record for land burned in a single season. In the first nine months of 2020, at least 188 people were killed in a record-tying 16 weather disasters. The nation spent almost 10 times as much responding to and recovering from natural events as it did in the 1980s. And that’s just the United States. Don’t forget the bush fires in Australia, floods in Central Africa and the powerful Cyclone Amphan, which killed dozens of people in India and Bangladesh. (Resources for the Future)

Flood Statistics:

  • Heavy rainfall events are one of the primary contributors to flooding, and the warming atmosphere is causing these events to occur more frequently in some parts of the United States. Heavy precipitation is projected to increase (along with temperatures) through the 21st century, to a level from 50% to as much as 300% the historical average. (NRDC)
  • Approximately 41 million U.S. residents are at risk from flooding along rivers and streams due to heavy rainfall and rapidly melting snow. (NRDC)
  • Devastating floods, cyclones and other environmental disasters linked to climate change are threatening the lives and futures of more than 19 million children in Bangladesh. (UNICEF)
  • Climate change is responsible for a long-term decline in snowpack in the Himalayas. Every four to five years, there is a severe flood that may cover over 60% of the country. (Scientific American)
  • The effects of climate change, including floods, put Thailand’s rice crops at risk and threaten to submerge Bangkok within 20 years. The damage to agriculture, coastal tourism, and the capital city as consequences of climate change will have enormous impacts. (Climate Institute)
Monsoon flooding in Mumbai, India in September 2019.
Photo by Himanshu Bhatt/Nurphoto via Getty Images

Landslide/Mudslide Statistics:

  • Wildfires are getting more common, and they make mountainsides more likely to give way. With vegetation burned away, roots that held underlying soil together are gone, and the cover that a canopy might have provided against rain vanishes too. After a fire, rain that would have ordinarily soaked into the ground instead bounces off and runs down the hillside, picking up loose sediment and rocks along the way. (WIRED)
  • The Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, burned almost 450 square miles of the Santa Ynez mountains in late December 2018. When the rains came, a massive winter storm after almost a year of drought, causing mudslides that killed at least 17 people. (WIRED)
  • Extreme precipitation events are likely to become more common in the future as the climate warms, and in some areas, this may lead to a higher frequency of landslide activity. The border region of China and Nepal could see a 30-70% increase in landslide activity. (NASA)
  • Colorado has seen temperatures rise by about 1.8°F since the early 20th Century, and the hotter temperatures have been associated with droughts and extreme wildfire seasons. Because much of the state is mountainous, this change in climate could also lead to more landslides. (EOS)
  • Two landslides set off by heavy rainfall and unstable soil killed at least 12 people on Java, Indonesia. Deadly landslides are common in Indonesia, where deforestation and illegal small-scale gold mining operations contribute to unstable soil conditions. (New York Times)
This Jan. 10, 2018, file aerial photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department shows mudflow and damage to homes in Montecito, Calif. The disaster occurred during an atmospheric river storm that dumped half an inch of rain on the steep, burned landscape above their home in 30 minutes, causing it to give way.
Photo by Matt Udkow/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP

Tropical Storms Statistics:

Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are all types of tropical storms. Illustration by NASA
  • Sea levels rising will amplify coastal storm surges—water pushed ashore by heavy winds, and will likely make coastal storms more damaging. (Center for Climate and Environment Solutions)
  • From 1975 to 2010, the proportion of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes (highest wind speeds) increased by 25-30% for every 1.8°F increase in global temperature. Hurricanes get their energy from ocean heat. More than 90% of the excess heat trapped in the climate system due to human-caused global warming has gone into the oceans, providing the added energy driving recent hurricanes’ extreme wind intensities. (SciLine)
    • The most damaging U.S. hurricanes are now three times more frequent than 100 years ago. (EDF)
    • Two of 2020’s strongest hurricanes killed more than 200 people and displaced more than 500,000. (Reuters)
  • Typhoons are one of the most massive, violent type of weather on the planet, measuring at least 50,000 feet high and more than a hundred miles across. (Sciencing)

Wildfire Statistics:

A forrest fire burning the side of a mountain in East Missoula, Montana. Photo by Patrick Orton / Getty Images
  • Since 2015, the United States has experienced, on average, roughly 100 more large wildfires every year than the year before. (Union of Concerned Scientists)
  • In Canada’s 2017 fire season the total area burned across the season was made 7 to 11 times larger by climate change. (Carbon Brief)
  • Since September 2020, at least 27 million acres of Australia have burned in one of the country’s worst fire seasons on record. The severity of the widespread fires is a symptom of global warming, and the blazes may even contribute to it. Australia’s bushfires have released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Vox)
  • By the middle of the century, there could be a 35 % average increase in the days with a high danger of fire across the world. (Carbon Brief)
  • Not only is the average wildfire season three and a half months longer than it was a few decades back, but the number of annual large fires in the western United States has tripled — burning twice as many acres. (EDF)

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