What Is a Natural Disaster?
Natural disasters have been around since the formation of the Earth. The term is generally used to describe major events that originate from a series of natural processes. Relevant examples of natural disasters include, but are not limited to, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions, and more.
To better understand natural disasters and how they occur around the world, we rely on meticulously collected natural disaster statistics. What’s more, for an event to be categorized as a natural disaster, there needs to be either physical or material damage. Likewise, natural disasters are well-known for the huge economic damage they can cause, especially when striking high-density industrial areas (tourism included).
Over time, scientists have actively studied natural disasters around the globe, revealing more about their distinct causes and effects. Now, despite learning more about the many types of natural disasters, we know little about the ways of stopping them or how to accurately predict these natural occurrences — hence why the loss of life, physical injury, and considerable financial damage are so often.
Fortunately, countries can prepare for natural disasters by improving their infrastructure, carrying out training exercises, and increasing the awareness of the population. People can also prepare by reading up on safety techniques, storing food, finding shelter, or evacuating in the case of catastrophes.
That is why the aim of this article is to serve as an all-inclusive knowledge hub, highlighting relevant information concerning this topic including recent disasters that occurred in the US, the financial damage caused by these natural disasters, a list of the worst natural occurrences in the history of mankind, alongside information on what causes natural disasters, as well as natural disasters as viewed from the perspective of the insurance industry.
To find out all this and more, just take a look at the stats down below.
Natural Disaster Statistics — A Quick Overview
- The 1887 Chinese Yellow River flood is commonly regarded as the world’s second-worst natural disaster (by death toll), with 900,000–2 million fatalities.
- Japan’s 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were the world’s most expensive natural disasters, with over $360 billion in material damages.
- The 2010 Russian heatwave managed to break the world record in terms of the highest temperature ever recorded in Russia, causing over 50,000 deaths.
- The 2010 Haiti earthquake was the world’s most recent large-scale disaster, responsible for over 316,000 deaths and billions’ worth of material damages.
- The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China reportedly caused over 830,000 deaths and is one of the earliest reported natural disasters.
Recent US Natural Disasters by Type
1. In 2018, over 56 severe thunderstorms affected the US, leading to some 66 fatalities.
Thunderstorms are described as short, yet violent, weather events that are associated with excessive rainfall, lightning, thunder, dense clouds, and strong winds. Thunderstorms can injure or cause death through the occurrence of lightning strikes, or indirectly through flooding, lack of visibility, or strong winds. They are one of the most common types of disasters.
2. Roughly 9 severe winter storms and cold waves affected the US in 2018, leading to 26 fatalities in total.
Winter storms are generally associated with extremely cold temperatures, alongside the formation of snow and ice. Blizzard conditions usually entail strong winds and reduced visibility due to constant snowfalls.
This particular disaster affects the body directly by causing heat loss and other health conditions such as frostbite and hypothermia. Winter storms can also confine people to their homes without basic necessities or cause winter car crashes. In the case of severe winter storms or cold waves, economic loss is also bound to happen. Currently, estimates show that winter storms may be on the list of natural disasters of 2019.
3. Floods and flash floods are also quite common since 20 such events were registered in the US during 2018, leading to a total of 49 fatalities.
Floods are generally characterized as an overflow of water and they are generally caused by excessive rainfall or the technical failure of a dam or levee. Floods can also be caused by tsunamis, melting ice, and other similar events involving water, as reported by natural disaster statistics.
Generally, floods are long-term and are not directly caused by rainfall, whereas flash floods are the result of excessive rainfall. Both types are bound to be dangerous, while also leading to significant material damages, personal injury, and loss of life. Although floods usually occur in regions where there is an increased risk of flooding (areas near rivers, seas, etc.), they can still happen in most places all around the world, according to natural disaster maps.
4. Luckily, severe earthquakes are quite rare; 2 significant earthquakes occurred in the US during 2018, yet caused no fatalities.
An earthquake is generally referred to as the movement of the tectonic plates present in the crust of the Earth. This movement causes sudden and possibly violent shaking of the ground, leading to significant loss of life, physical injury, and economic damage.
Despite being one of the most deadly natural disasters, some earthquakes are completely harmless since the severity is directly based on how violent the shaking is (the Richter’s scale). Loss of life and material damages are considerably higher in urban areas, especially if the buildings are old or lack proper reinforcement.
5. According to statistics, reports indicate that a total of 5 tropical cyclones occurred in the US during 2018; a total of 107 deaths were reported.
These natural disasters occur under specific conditions. Namely, hurricanes, tropical cyclones, and typhoons happen if and when moist and warm air present above the ocean rises.
One of the more recent disasters, hurricanes generally affect coastal areas, damaging property, while also causing a great deal of injury and loss of life. Luckily, hurricanes can be predicted, but there is still no way of stopping them.
6. Wildfires are yet another significant natural disaster occurring in the US; 16 such events took place during 2018, leading to a total of 107 deaths, according to natural disaster statistics for the US.
A recent study has shown that roughly 85% of the US-based wildfires are actually caused by men, despite being classed as a natural disaster.
On the other hand, numerous wildfires are caused by prolonged heatwaves in areas with dense forests. A simple spark (such as a lightning strike) is enough to cause a fire. Predicting wildfires is extremely difficult, whereas controlling them implies great efforts from firefighters and park rangers; the US natural disaster map serves as an effective preparation method in the case of wildfires.
7. In 2018, 38.4% of the continental US was in a drought; the highest recorded percentage since 2014 (40%).
A drought implies the lack of water affecting the natural wildlife and decreases the economic output in agricultural areas. Droughts don’t cause death or personal injury in the US, but it does impact the less developed areas of the world where a steady supply of water does not exist. Droughts have often been referred to as a natural catastrophe by the WHO.
8. 108 people died from extreme heat in 2018, whereas only 30 died from extreme cold.
Heatwaves are periods of intensely hot weather and they are more dangerous than extreme cold (weather).
These can directly hurt humans (especially children and the elderly), causing health conditions such as heat strokes. Luckily for us, predicting heatwaves is possible with our current technology; public awareness concerning heatwaves can significantly lower the number of injuries and deaths occurring each year.
Source: New York Times
Worst US States for Natural Disasters
Recent Natural Disasters in the World
9. The 2018 Sulawesi earthquake and afferent tsunami took roughly 1,303 lives in Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.
This particular event is classed as one of the most recent tsunamis and earthquakes, responsible for considerable loss of life and material damages. In fact, the disaster was the deadliest earthquake of the year, and the tsunami that it caused is also classed as one of the world’s worst disasters, according to the list of all natural disasters.
10. The 2017 Hurricane Maria caused a death toll of approximately 3,059 individuals in Puerto Rico and the Dominica region.
This particular event was a category 5 hurricane that occurred in September 2017, causing significant loss of life and considerable economic loss. It’s worth mentioning that it is currently considered the worst disaster to affect this region, alongside the strongest and deadliest hurricane to occur in the Atlantic since the year 1998, according to our list of recent natural disasters.
11. The 2015 Nepal earthquake is reportedly responsible for approximately 8,964 deaths and is regarded as the deadliest recent earthquake to occur.
Sources indicate that apart from killing almost 9,000 people, this earthquake also injured over 20,000 individuals. It had a recorded magnitude of 7.8 and led to over $10 billion in damages.
To put things into perspective, this amount represents roughly 50% of Nepal’s GDP at that point in time, so it is definitely one of the major natural disasters to affect this nation.
12. The 2010 Russian heatwave managed to break the world record in terms of the highest temperature ever recorded in Russia, causing over 50,000 deaths.
While this event is less recent when compared to the ones highlighted above, it is no less shocking; 56,000 deaths were reported due to summer temperatures that were 10 degrees higher than the normal threshold.
List of Natural Disasters by Total Financial Damage
|Natural Disaster||Financial Damage|
|Japan’s 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami||$360 billion|
|Japan’s 1995 Hanshin earthquake||$197 billion|
|China’s 2008 Sichuan earthquake||$148 billion|
|The US Hurricane Katrina of 2005||$125 billion|
|The US Hurricane Harvey of 2017||$125 billion|
|The NA Hurricane Maria of 2017||$91.6 billion|
|The NA Hurricane Sandy of 2012||$68.7 billion|
|Thailand’s 2011 Floods||$45.7 billion|
Source: BrinkNews, TheBalance
List of Natural Disasters by Fatalities (Recent)
|Natural Disaster||Death Toll|
|Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (2004)||227,898|
|Haiti earthquake (2010)||160,000|
|Nargis Cyclone (2008)||138,373|
|Kashmir earthquake (2005)||87,351|
|European heatwave (2003)||70,000|
|Gujarat earthquake (2001)||20,085|
|Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (2011)||15,897|
Source: Our World in Data
Worst Natural Disasters in History
The following statistics include information on the world’s deadliest natural disasters. Do keep in mind that in the past, reporting was not as accurate as it is today. Therefore, there is a distinct possibility that other disasters were significantly worse.
Similarly, the list below does not include events with death tolls that are still uncertain (such as several volcanic eruptions and famines).
Nevertheless, most sources agree that these are, in fact, the worst natural disasters in the world.
13. The 1931 Chinese flood is considered one of the world’s worst natural disasters, with a death toll of 1–4 million people.
These floods were caused by the Yangtze-Huai river, and to this day, are considered the deadliest floods in the history of mankind.
The actual death toll is difficult to predict, seeing how record-keeping back in the day was not as advanced as it is now; especially concerning the biggest natural disasters.
Nevertheless, over 1 million people perished due to these floods, while billions of dollars’ worth of property was destroyed, according to the surviving records. What’s more, these floods occurred mostly in the central and eastern parts of China.
14. The 1887 Chinese Yellow River flood is commonly regarded as the world’s second-worst natural disaster (by death toll), with approximately 900,000–2 million fatalities, according to global natural disaster statistics.
Yet another major flood affecting China, the 1887 Yellow River (Huang He) flood was caused due to the elevated status of the river.
Since then, numerous infrastructure projects were carried out to ensure that such events do not happen again in the future. The flood lasted for quite a long time and has led to the deaths of over 1 million people. This is definitely an event that holds the second spot on the natural disasters map.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
15. The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake in China reportedly caused over 830,000 deaths.
This particular earthquake happened a long time ago, yet it was still recorded by scholars back in the day. Despite this, it is commonly regarded as the world’s worst earthquake, judging how over 800,000 people lost their lives.
Record-keeping back then was quite difficult — hence why numerous experts believe that the fatalities were even higher, according to natural disaster statistics by year.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
16. The 1970 Bhola Cyclone in Eastern Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) reportedly caused over 500,000 fatalities.
This cyclone is believed to be one of the strongest and most devastating to ever hit the world. The cyclone mostly affected the West Bengali region of India, alongside East Pakistan.
With wind speeds of over 240 km/h, it’s no wonder how this particular world disaster caused over half a million fatalities, alongside material damages of over $86 billion.
Source: Hurricane Science
17. The 2010 Haiti earthquake is responsible for over 316,000 deaths and billions’ worth of material damages.
The Haiti earthquake is considered the worst natural disaster in recent times. With a magnitude of 7 (on the Richter scale), it affected areas over 25 km from its epicenter.
Of all the natural disasters, this example was one of the deadliest. Many of the world’s countries sent help in the form of personnel, food, medicine, and money. As a result, this event has paved the way for future collaboration as well; particularly when it comes to natural disasters, seeing how they are becoming more and more frequent with each passing year.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica
What Causes Natural Disasters?
The answer to this question depends entirely on the type of natural disaster that we are referring to — hence why we prepared a brief explanation of some of the causes for the main types of disasters:
- Tsunamis — These events are caused by a sudden and violent motion occurring on the ocean floor. Generally, this motion is caused by an earthquake or volcanic eruption, but can also be caused by landslides, for instance. Tsunamis can be easily predicted after such an event has been recorded, and are one of the main types of natural disasters.
- Earthquakes — These events are caused following the sudden release of seismic energy inside the earth’s tectonic plates causing violent shaking of the ground. Predicting earthquakes is difficult, yet specific machines exist and are being trialed. As you may already know, earthquakes are one of the world’s worst natural disasters in terms of the death toll and material damages. In fact, earthquakes often catch top spots on natural disaster lists.
- Volcano Eruptions — These events occur when magma flows to the surface of the volcano, following increased pressure. Pressure releases can be slow, or abrupt.
- Floods — These events happen after severe rainfall, or following dam defects. Floods are most likely to occur in lowland areas.
- Landslides — These events are usually caused by volcanic activity, earthquakes, weathering of rocks, and soil erosion. Recent natural disasters of 2019 also show several occurrences of landslides.
- Drought — Causes for these events include heat waves, alongside the natural lack of water (no nearby lakes or rivers).
- Wildfire — These events are generally caused by mankind, who are generally responsible for the initial ignition. Natural events such as lightning can also cause a wildfire, which is more frequent in the case of hot weather and drought. This is one of the most common natural disasters in the US (especially in the Californian area).
- Heatwaves — These events are caused by the movement of high atmospheric pressure, alongside the tilt of the Earth. There is no way to stop a heatwave from occurring.
- Tornadoes — In the case of tornadoes, they form following the interaction of warm and humid air with dry and cold air. In some cases, specific events allow for the rotation of the air, causing a tornado. A look at the natural disaster map of the USA will show that tornado occurrences are quite common, especially when compared to other regions of the world.
Natural Disasters and The Insurance Industry
Research has shown that in 2018 over $160 billion in material damages were recorded following the occurrence of natural disasters throughout the world. In comparison, 2017 saw roughly $350 billion worth of damages. Values fluctuate from year to year, especially when considering natural disasters by state map in the US.
Based on this, it only makes sense that the insurance industry needs to keep a close eye on the occurrence rate of natural disasters, in order to properly manage monthly premiums and overall coverage. Several research efforts have concluded that insurance monthly premiums are higher in areas where natural disasters take place more often.
Now that you know the answer to the question “what are natural disasters” and have a better idea of their general impact on our society, it is important to point out that insurance companies cannot hope to afford to cover all policies in the case of an unexpected and destructive disaster. After all, recent research reveals that agencies often undergo significant losses. For instance, a 2018 wildfire caused $12,500 million in insurance losses in the US.
We hope that the previously mentioned natural disaster statistics will help create and spread awareness, as well as encourage NGOs, individuals, and governments to invest more time and resources into the study of natural disasters (and how to stop them).
Hopefully, this will lead to a (significant) reduction in the health and economic impact of such catastrophes in the near future, allowing us to prepare even for the worst of disasters (on time).
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are natural disasters increasing in number?
Yes, there has been a recent increase in natural disasters during the past few decades. It is too early to tell whether this is a direct result of climate change and global warming.
2. How many natural disasters occur each year?
Roughly 6,800 natural disasters take place every year, around the globe. The same study indicates that almost 68,000 people lose their lives as a result of these disasters. Do keep in mind that values vary based on the severity of these catastrophes.
3. What is considered to be the number one natural disaster in the United States?
Floods are regarded as the most common natural disaster, taking place in the US.
4. What is the most common natural disaster in the world?
Flooding is by far the most common natural disaster worldwide, according to natural disaster statistics.
5. What natural disaster kills the most?
Statistics indicate that earthquakes are bound to lead to the highest number of fatalities.
6. Do humans cause natural disasters?
Yes! Some can be caused directly (wildfires), whereas other natural disasters are caused indirectly and over a prolonged period of time.