Super Disasters: Growing Weather Danger?

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Super Disasters

Growing Weather Danger?

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In a dramatic message, the International Red Cross recently admitted its statistics showed an alarming rise of unusually large natural catastrophes they call "superdisasters." A combination of horrific storms and increasing numbers of people and property in harm's way has made recent years some of the deadliest on record.

"Everyone is aware of the environmental problems of global warming and deforestation on the one hand and the social problems of increasing poverty and growing shanty towns on the other," said Dr. Astrid Heiberg, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "But when these two factors collide, you have a new scale of catastrophe. At the Red Cross and [Red] Crescent alone, we have a huge increase in the number of people needing our assistance due to floods and earthquakes. In the last six years, it has risen from less than half a million to more than five and a half million" (International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society press release, "The World Disasters Report for 1999").

A large part of the problem is the increasingly large number of people crowding into packed, poorly constructed housing in areas at great risk in major storms. When disaster threatens, there is little infrastructure to evacuate people beforehand or to help them when it strikes. Consequently the toll of injuries and deaths is much greater than it otherwise would be.

Dramatic rise in damage

The first chapter in "The World Disasters Report for 1999" ominously stated: "Compared to the 1960s, the past decade has seen the number of great natural catastrophes triple, costing the world's economies nine times as much-the bill for 1998 alone was over US$90 billion .... From tsunamis and earthquakes to floods and famines, humankind is increasingly threatened by the forces of nature. With almost a billion people living in unplanned urban shanty towns, deforestation wrecking ecological defenses against catastrophic natural events, and global warming making the forces of wind, rain and sun even harder to predict and counter, the world is at risk as never before."

A Red Cross press release adds: ".... The report shows compelling evidence of a trend towards weather-triggered super-disasters .... The developing world will continue to be hardest hit by the cascading effects of human-driven climate change, environmental degradation and population pressures .... Already 96 percent of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries."

Cynthia Long of the U.S.-based Disaster Relief Organization commented on the Red Cross report: "The report found that human-driven climate change and rapidly changing socio-economic conditions have and will continue to set off chain reactions of devastation leading to more behemoth catastrophes .... By analyzing the massive hurricanes, droughts, floods and epidemics that plagued the planet last year, the organization discovered a dangerous trend toward 'super-disasters' ....

"Declining soil fertility, drought, flooding and deforestation drove 25 million 'environmental refugees' from their land and into vulnerable squatter communities of crowded cities. Fleeing from weather-devastated homes, the group represented 58 percent of the total refugee population worldwide" ("International Red Cross Predicts More Global 'Super Disasters,' " Disaster Relief Organization, June 25, 1999).

Doug Rekenthaler, managing editor of the U.S. Disaster Relief Organization, stated: "Indeed, the clear-cut lands of the developing world and the negligent environmental policies that make them that way increasingly are being implicated in natural disasters around the globe .... These barren hillsides send rainwater, rocks, and mud racing into lowland areas where unsuspecting villages often are entombed in their homes. Thousands of people have died this summer as the result of such flash floods and mudslides unleashed by monsoon rains" ("Loss of Trees Leads to Worsening Disasters in Developing World," Disaster Relief Organization, September 22, 1998).

Worst year for natural disasters on record

According to the 1999 Red Cross report, 1998 was the worst year for natural disasters since it began keeping records (comparable 1999 statistics have not been released). "More major natural disasters occurred in 1998 than in any other year on record," the agency stated.

A representative of the reinsurance company Munich Re, which has monitored the frequency and scope of natural disasters for a quarter century and advises the insurance industry, stated: "Comparing the figures for the 1960s and the past ten years, we have established that the number of natural disasters was three times larger [in 1998]. The cost to the world's economies, after adjusting for inflation, is nine times higher and for the insurance industry three times as much."

In 1998 an estimated 50,000 people died in more that 700 natural disasters around the world-an increase of about 100 catastrophes over 1995, the previous worst year for natural disasters. Windstorms and floods accounted for 85 percent of the financial losses. Most of the disasters struck poor and uninsured areas, so insurance-industry losses were only $15 billion. However, that figure was more than three times the industry payouts for 1997.

"From deforestation of mountain slopes to development in flood plains and watersheds," noted Mr. Rekenthaler, "from poor topsoil management to excessive burning of fossil fuels, mankind increasingly is becoming an enemy to his own state. Complicating the picture are data trends indicating the planet is rapidly warming .... The World Meteorological Organization announced that 1998 was the warmest year since records began being kept in 1860. Moreover, 1998 marked the 20th consecutive year in which global surface temperatures were above normal. Seven of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past decade ...."

Even scientists who are skeptical of a global warming trend have admitted the recent evidence is troubling. "It is very important that we not jump to conclusions about weather extremes because, in a sense, every year has its extremes," explains Rob Quayle of Global Climate Lab. "But some events in 1998 just were so striking that it is obvious something is going on. This definitely was a year characterized by weather extremes."

Killer hurricanes and tornadoes

For the first time in this century, in September 1998 four hurricanes simultaneously plowed through the Atlantic Basin. Since 1995 this area has been victim to 41 hurricanes—20 of major proportions—of which the monstrous Mitch reached the maximum category 5 with 180-mile-and-hour winds. It killed at least 11,000 people, caused $5 billion in damage and left millions homeless. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew caused $30 billion in damage.

More recently, in 1999 five Atlantic hurricanes reached category-4 status—the largest number in a season since records began being kept in 1886.

Some are attributing this increase in hurricanes and their intensity to warmer ocean temperatures. ".... Sea surface temperatures in some areas are the warmest ever recorded," comments Rekenthaler. "And those heated waters are being blamed—at least in part—for this year's [1998] bumper crop of tropical storms, hurricanes, and ultra-heavy rainfalls in some areas of the world.

"The warmer waters also are being blamed for a massive die-off of coral reefs around the world, which not only serve as hearth and home to marine life, but also as natural barriers to tsunamis and other damaging coastal waves. The result of all this warming is that the storms that roar in from the oceans are larger, are laden with unusually large amounts of moisture, and are powered by strong winds, all of which serve to make life miserable for those living in their paths."

Also, the number of twister-related deaths in the United States reached its highest level in 24 years. In the first half of 1998, three F5 tornadoes, the rarest and most powerful of the twisters, wrought havoc in their paths.

Some areas wetter, other drier

Kevin Trenberth, director of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, recently completed a study that supports the idea that regions of the earth are experiencing wetter- or drier-than-normal weather.

"As the earth warms," explains Mr. Trenberth, "more and more moisture is sucked into the atmosphere. There is 10 percent more moisture in the air today due to increased evaporation. When a storm system picks it up, it delivers that to the earth much harder than if it wasn't there. At the same time, dry regions are experiencing longer droughts ... The warmer temperatures pull tremendous amounts of moisture into the atmosphere, leaving some areas dry while delivering a lot of rain to other regions. These droughts, in turn, lead to massive crop failures and famine. As one example, Texas and Oklahoma suffered through the second worst drought of their history last summer, resulting in billions in aid to farmers and ranchers."

This unstable weather pattern can explain the common phenomenon nowadays of having massive rains in some areas and drought in others. In a recent report, climatologist Jonathan Overpeck suggested that the megadroughts that periodically occur across the planet could lead "to a natural disaster of a dimension unprecedented in the 20th century."

Not all the news is negative. Warmer temperatures have increased the growing seasons in some areas. A 35-year study of plant life shows warmer spring temperatures arriving six days earlier and colder fall temperatures being delayed by five days. Plant life in many areas responds favorably to increases in average temperatures.

As noted above, there is controversy over what actually is causing the weather-related disasters we have witnessed recently. There is also considerable debate over whether the earth is indeed in a long-term warming trend and whether humans are contributing to any increase in average global temperatures. But it is indisputable that disastrous upheavals have occurred recently—and indications are that they will continue. Superdisasters and megadroughts are not the normal terms used by sober scientists and agencies such as the Red Cross, which usually resist sensationalizing the news.

Centuries ago God promised His people they could experience a harmonious balance sunshine and rain—neither too much nor too little. He declared these ideal conditions for food production and for safe living conditions to be "blessings," and indeed they are (Deuteronomy 28:12).

He linked blessings to the behavior of the people, warning them good weather could not be taken for granted when the populace abandoned His revealed spiritual values. "I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze. And your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit" (Leviticus 26:19-20).

How much of what is happening in the world's weather is merely natural cycling, and how much is related to God's warning of the consequences of turning our backs on Him? It seems clear that in recent years the world is not being blessed with a proper, life-giving balance of rain and sunshine. Mankind would do well to look to its conduct and to humbly seek the One who can provide what we lack.