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The world is emerging from 'the year of disasters'
by Joan Lowy
Scripps Howard News Service


December 31, 2004

The tsunamis that devastated southern Asia this week bring to a close a year of natural disasters that left hardly a corner of the planet unscathed.

The year began in the wake of a massive earthquake in the ancient city of Bam in Iran, on the day after Christmas 2003, that killed about 30,000 people and destroyed 70 percent of homes, schools, hospitals and businesses.

It closed with the most powerful earthquake in recent decades sending walls of water crashing ashore in Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and eight other countries, killing more than 116,000 people, a total that rises daily.

In between those two great quakes was a particularly destructive Atlantic hurricane season. There were 15 named tropical storms this year - the average is 10 - and nine of them struck the United States, including four hurricanes that ripped through Florida. The last time four hurricanes struck a single state in one year was 1886 in Texas.

Torrential rainfall from Hurricane Jeanne produced floods that claimed nearly 3,000 lives Haiti in September. The disaster came after floods and landslides in Haiti and the Dominican Republic in late May, in which more than 2,000 people were killed and several thousand others left homeless. Hurricane damage in the United States and the Caribbean totaled an estimated $43 billion.

Hurricane Ivan was one of the most destructive and strongest storms ever, maintaining a strength of category force 4 to 5 for more than five days. The storm caused serious damage to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, one of several factors that helped send oil prices spiraling.

But perhaps the most bizarre twist to the 2004 hurricane season was in March, when Caterina, the first recorded hurricane to develop in the South Atlantic, made landfall along the southern coast of Brazil, causing $350 million in damages. Scientists had thought water and air temperatures were too cold in the South Atlantic to permit the formation of hurricanes and, until Caterina, none had been recorded in 48 years of satellite observation.

"Every year there are disasters that claim hundreds of thousands of lives and we've had our share in 2004," said Jay Lawrimore, chief of the climate monitoring branch at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

"Excluding the tsunamis, on a global scale it was not that unusual" a year except that there were "some notable high-profile events," Lawrimore said.

In the North Pacific, for example, 2004 was only an average season for tropical cyclones and typhoons in terms of frequency, but an especially unlucky year for Japan. Ten typhoons (the Pacific equivalent of a hurricane) made landfall in Japan, obliterating the previous record of six in one year. They caused 209 deaths and billions of dollars in damage. Typhoon Tokage was one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded.

Largely unnoticed in the attention focused on hurricanes were record numbers of tornadoes in the United States, many spawned by hurricanes. The year saw 1,717 tornadoes, compared to the previous record of 1,424 set in 1998.

There were 182 tornadoes reported in the United States during August, 56 more than the previous August record set in 1979, and 235 tornadoes reported in September, shattering the previous September record of 139 set in 1967, according to the National Weather Service.

Despite the record number of tornadoes, they tended to be less intense than the top categories of dangerous twisters, Lawrimore said.

As if earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes weren't enough, Alaska recorded its worst wildfire season, leaving 6.5 million acres of forest charred. Record warm, dry weather was partly to blame.

Drought continued to punish much of the western United States, Australia and parts of Africa. Some parts of the Rocky Mountain West experienced their seventh straight year of drought.

Great swarms of crop-eating locusts devastated swaths of Africa. The combination of locusts and drought may mean greater hunger next year.

There were also summer heat waves in Spain, Portugal and Romania, sending temperatures soaring over 100 degrees F. Eastern Australia experienced one of its worst heat waves ever in February with temperatures topping 113 degrees.

Over 1,800 deaths were blamed on floods brought by heavy monsoon rains in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Flooding in northeast India and Bangladesh was the worst in more than a decade. In eastern and southern China, heavy rains during June and July produced severe flooding and landslides that affected more than 100 million people and were blamed for more than 1,000 deaths nationwide.

In November, Munich Re - one of the world's largest reinsurance companies - estimated global economic losses from natural disasters in the first 10 months of 2004 at $90 billion, compared to an average of $70 billion a year in the previous decade. With the addition of the Indian Ocean tsunamis, losses are expected top $100 billion. The majority of economic losses in developing countries are not insured.

Scientists point out that global warming may exacerbate some natural disasters, although none is directly caused by climate change. Warming can cause sea levels to rise and erode coasts, and that may increase damage from hurricane storm surges and tsunamis, as well as the intensity of hurricane winds.

Globally, 2004 was the fourth warmest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Of the 10 warmest years since record keeping began in 1861, nine have occurred since 1995. The 1990s was the warmest decade on record.

A United Nations study released this year said that while the annual cost of natural disasters rose significantly between 1993 and 2002, the number of deaths has been declining, thanks largely to early warning systems for hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones.

The worst disaster of the last 30 years in terms of fatalities was a 1976 earthquake in China that officially killed 242,000 people, but which experts believe killed as many 750,000.

Brian Tucker, president of GeoHazards International, which researches earthquake safety, said he fears that growth of "megacities" with populations of more than 10 million people in earthquake-prone regions means there will eventually be an earthquake that kills more 1 million people.

"I think it would be too simple to say that natural disasters in developing countries are killing fewer and fewer people," Tucker said. "I think you have to dig deeper into the region and the type of natural phenomenon."

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