The case for taking disaster seriously

by | Jan 17, 2020 | News, Research

Major disasters are becoming more frequent, and are impacting more people.

Recently, Amy Feldman of All Good Work challenged me for this vague and unsupported statement. That sent me on an industrious search for clear reliable evidence, and through a rabbit warren of government reports, scientific discussions, and disaster data sets.

What I found was that some disasters are indeed becoming more frequent and strike with greater force, more people are at risk for being in harm’s way of all types of hazards, and more of the people in harm’s way are more vulnerable to damaging effects. These increases are driven by environmental changes, population expansion, and greater technological dependencies.


Unpacking the claims

Before we look at the numbers, let’s be a little more specific about what the indicators say.

Some disasters are becoming more frequent and strike with greater force

  • Globally, in the US, and in California, wildfires and floods are becoming more frequent and affecting larger areas [GAR19, CRS 2019, LAO 2019].
  • Globally and in the US, major storms and hurricanes becoming more frequent, and catastrophic storms are becoming even larger [GAR19, CRS 2019].
  • Globally, new biological hazards are emerging constantly, and have increased opportunities to spread [GAR19].
  • Cascading and compound effects are creating new types of disasters. For instance, NATECH events are incidents where side effects of natural hazards causes cascading technological accidents [GAR19].

More people are at risk for being in harm’s way

  • Throughout the world, as populations expand, more people are settling, and more capital development is placed, in risk-prone areas [GAR19, CRS 2017].

More of the people in harm’s way are more vulnerable to damaging effects

  • Globally and in the US, risk-prone areas have not been settled earlier precisely because they are risk-prone, and the people who are settling there are typically those with fewer economic resources [GAR19, CRS 2017].
  • Generally, modern populations are increasingly dependent on technical infrastructure and public services that are more likely to be disrupted in risk-prone areas [GAR19].

A few points of interest

  • The numbers of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are relatively stable, but they frequently affect larger populations when they occur [GAR19, LAO 2019].
  • Globally, while the number of people affected by disaster is increasing, the number of disaster-related deaths is decreasing [GAR19].


So, what support did I find for these claims?

Alas, I didn’t find simple hard proof. Disaster is not only a very complex concept, but, by its very nature, chaotic and incoherent. It’s easy to specify measures such as “number of incidents,” “number of people affected,” and “economic costs,” but defining metrics for measurement is far more challenging, and collecting reliable data comprehensively is yet more challenging.

So, while it’s easy to find a smoking gun, there are always questions about why it went off.

That said, let’s take a look at some numbers.



According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), “3.9 billion people, or about half the worldwide population, were potentially exposed to natural disasters in 2018. When counting if a region was affected by multiple disasters, this number jumps to 10.7 billion people.” [CRED 2019].

The same source recorded reports of 315 natural disaster events, affecting over 68 million people, and incurring US$131.7 billion in economic losses. Flooding accounted for 50% of the total affected, followed by storms which accounted for 28%. Earthquakes were the deadliest, accounting for 45% of deaths, followed by flooding at 24%.

These numbers are of country-level events.

In 2018, the US had had 66 federally declared major disasters, that is, state-level events. Storms were the most common cause (26), followed by floods (19), and hurricanes (13). Total damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (CPI-adjusted) in 14 of the 66 events. Storms again topped the list with 7 events, followed by tornado (3), hurricanes (2), fire (1), and drought (1) [FEMA].


2018 in perspective

Globally, 2018 was a good year. Compared to the previous decade (2008-2017), there were 33 fewer disasters than the annual average of 348, 130.8 million fewer people affected than the annual average of 198.8 million, and US$35 billion less in economic losses than the annual average of US$166.7 [CRED 2019].

In contrast, it was not a good year for the US. There were 30.2 more major disaster declarations than the annual average of 35.8 for the years 1953-2016 [CRS 2017], and 7.8 more billion-dollar events than the annual average of 6.2 for the 1980-2018 period [Smith 2019].

Looking at the data collected by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) for country-level events, it is clear that 2018 was not an anomaly, either globally or for the US. Visual inspection reveals that disasters started increasing in frequency and impact around 1960 and that the rate of increase may have  started to slow around 2000. It also shows that the increased numbers of events lies predominately from hazards that are amplified by environmental factors such as climate changes and land use. All types of events show increased impact and costs [EM-DAT].

Total (Global) Earthquakes, floods, storms, and epidemics (Global) Total (Americas)
Reported events
TOTAL NUMBER of reported Natural disasters between 1900 and 2019
People affected
Economic damage
in 2016 US$


Charts drawn from the EM-DAT database, accessed 2019-12-09.

While these trends could be explained by changes in reporting, data collection, or other factors not related to actual events, expert analysis indicates that numbers and impacts of disasters truly are rising:

From the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction:

“People and assets around the world are being exposed to a growing mixture of hazards and risks, in places and to an extent previously unrecorded.” [GAR19]

“Simply put, the concentration of individuals and produced capital in hazard-exposed areas today is greater by an order of magnitude than it was 40 years ago.” [GAR13]

From the US Congressional Research Service:

“Given the variables described in this report that can lead to an increase in the number of declarations, including trends in severe weather patterns, population growth, and development, the upward trend of declarations will likely continue if declarations policies remain unchanged.” [LAO 2019]

Finally, the data also reveal much greater variability in number of disasters from year to year, suggesting greater unpredictability and uncertainty, and a growing need for flexibility in response capacity.

From the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction:

“What is evident, is that change is happening more quickly and surprisingly across multiple dimensions and scales than we ever thought possible. This means that although modelling and metrics are important, we can no longer use the past as a reliable indicator of the future.” [GAR19]



[CRED 2019] CRED. Natural Disasters 2018. Brussels: CRED; 2019.

[CRS 2017] Congressional Research Service. Stafford Act Declarations 1953-2016: Trends, Analyses, and Implications for Congress (R42702), 2017.

[EM-DAT] CRED. EM-DAT database. Accessed 2019-12-09.

[FEMA] FEMA. Disaster Declarations Summary. Accessed 2019-12-06.

[GAR13] UNISDR. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. 2013.

[GAR19] UNDRR. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction. 2019.

[LAO 2019] CA Legislative Analyst’s Office, Main Types of Disasters and Associated Trends, 10 Jan 2019. Accessed 20 Nov 2019.

[SMITH 2019] Smith, Adam. (2019-02-07]. 2018’s Billion Dollar Disasters in Context [Blog post].


Related articles

Coronese, Matteo, Francesco Lamperti, Klaus Keller, Francesca Chiaromonte, and Andrea Roventini. “Evidence for sharp increase in the economic damages of extreme natural disasters.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 43 (2019): 21450-21455.

Than, Ker. (2005-10-17). Scientists: Natural Disasters Becoming More Common [News article].

Zagorsky, Jay L. (2017-09-08). Are catastrophic disasters striking more often? [Blog post].


The past 20 years offer some striking numbers

The five years with most billion-dollar events in the US

The five costliest US hurricanes on record

The majority of the largest and most destructive wildfires in California