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Environment

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

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanDecember 22, 2010 3:31 AM
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It'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]

Related Content: 80beats: Study: We Still Have a Chance to Save the Polar Bears

80beats: The Cancun Climate Summit Is Over. Did They Agree on Anything?

80beats: Supreme Court to Decide: Is Global Warming a “Public Nuisance”?

80beats: Do the Election Results Halt All Action on Climate Change?

DISCOVER: It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Big Battle Over Climate Science

, interviews with Judith Curry & Michael Mann Image: iStockphoto [h/t Charlie Petit

]

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