The Amazing Decline of Deaths From Extreme Weather

As we experience climate change, we also have to withstand wild swings in weather and danger.

Virginia after Hurricane Irene. Credit: Getty Images.

With climate change, the world is generally getting warmer –- but not in a slow and straight line. Instead, many models show that weather is simply becoming more unpredictable and possibly more volatile, with more severe storms, more severe droughts and more peaks in all kinds of weather extremes.

All of that volatility raises its own fears. With more extreme weather events, are we getting set up for a rise in related injuries and deaths? A new study offers some comforting news.

Researchers from the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank, took a decade-by-decade look at the number of deaths caused worldwide by extreme weather events from 1900 to 2010.


Over time, the study found, weather has been growing increasingly extreme. In the last decade, there were 350 reported severe weather events each year, compared with just 2.5 per year in the 1920s and close to 46 per year in the 1960s.

When it comes to death by weather, the worst decade was from 1920 to 1929, when environmental conditions killed 241 out of every million people. Since then, the rate has steadily dropped by 98 percent. In the 1960s, 50 out of every million people around the world died because of floods, fires, storms, extreme heat or cold, and related causes. By the 2000s, the rate was down to about five out of a million.

During the study period, the researchers also found that droughts were responsible for close to 60 percent of extreme weather deaths, while floods caused almost 35 percent. Deaths from both causes have dropped precipitously in recent decades. Even hurricanes, tornadoes and other storms, which claimed 7 percent of extreme weather deaths from 1900 to 2008, kill 55 percent fewer people now than they did in the '70s.

To put the numbers in perspective, weather now ranks extremely low on life's list of risks. Overall, weather caused less than one-tenth of a percent of all the deaths during the last decade. Car crashes, accidents and violence are far more significant threats.

Over the years, an increase in global wealth has made the biggest difference in protecting us from extreme weather, the researchers concluded. Political leaders have more resources now and more motivation to declare public emergencies in crisis situations.

"In democracies, political leaders tend to declare emergencies early and often as an automatic qualification for funding," they wrote in the study. "Elected politicians apparently like to be photographed emerging from a helicopter at a disaster scene, especially with relief money in hand."

Science and technology have helped, too. With better seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation and farm machinery, we are able to produce far more food, even during droughts –- helping us better weather the worst that weather can throw at us.