Natural Disasters 2013 Review

According to figures released by the German Reinsurer Munich Re, twice as many people died in natural disasters in 2013 than in the prior year, but property damage and insurance losses were significantly less.

Munich Re reports 880 natural disaster events in 2013, costing $125 billion in total losses, compared to $173 billion in 2012, and insured losses of $31 billion, about half the insured costs in the year before. However more than 20,000 people died in natural disasters in 2013, twice the number of deaths reported for 2012. Here are some of the most costly natural disasters of 2013, in either lives or property losses.

Earthquakes: Magnitude 7.0 to 7.7 quakes struck China in April, Pakistan in September, and the island of Bohol in the Philippines in October, killing 1,300 and destroying tens of thousands of homes. Damage amounts were not available.

Tornadoes: On May 20, an EF-5 tornado with a wind speed of 210 mph (340 km/h) ripped through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. The tornado, 1.3 miles (2km) wide, stayed on the ground for 40 minutes on a 17-mile (27km) path of destruction. 1150 homes were wiped out, 91 people died, including 7 children in a local school. Total damage was more than $2 billion.

Floods: Flooding in India, Central Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Colorado resulted in a combined death toll of 7,000 and damages exceeding $30 billion. European flooding was called the worst since the middle ages. Most of the deaths occurred in flash floods and landslides in the mountains of northern India and Nepal.

Meteor strike: A 13,000 ton meteor traveling at 60 times the speed of sound streaked into earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 15 and exploded in a fireball over the Caucuses region of Russia. The shock wave damaged 7,200 buildings and injured 1,500 people. The injuries were mainly from flying glass from blown-out windows. Fortunately, there were no reported deaths.

Wildfires: Brush fires in Australia and California scorched hundreds of thousands of acres. In October, Australian firefighters fought 66 brush fires along a line that stretched for 1,000 miles (1,650km). In California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rim Fire that started in August was not put out till mid October, after burning 257,000 acres of heavily forested watershed.

Typhoons: Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines island of Leyte on November 8 with wind speed of 195 mph (320km/h), the strongest ever recorded for a tropical cyclone making landfall. A 20-ft (6m) tidal surge wiped out the city of Tacloban. More than 6,000 people lost their lives in the storm. Total cost has been estimated at up to $15 billion.

While the Pacific typhoon season was quite active, with 31 tropical storms, of which 13 were typhoons and 5 were super typhoons, the Atlantic hurricane season was much quieter than expected, with no major storms. The first few weeks of 2014 have also been relatively quiet, with the exception of the Mt. Sinabung volcano eruptions in Indonesia, during which 14 people have died and 20,000 have been evacuated.  Inevitably, there will be more natural disasters in the months ahead. We will have to wait and see what the rest of 2014 will bring.





Can a Killer Asteroid Strike Earth?

Bodies from outer space have hit earth in the past, causing widespread destruction. Two examples are the asteroid or comet that struck in the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, creating the massive Chicxulub crater and perhaps leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. And the fireball that exploded over an unpopulated area of Siberia in 1908, flattening trees 10 miles (16km) in all directions, and causing a magnitude 5.0 earthquake. Computer simulations show that it was a small but dense asteroid that exploded above ground with the power of several hundred atomic bombs. If it had hit a city, the loss of life would have been catastrophic.

Can it happen again? NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), an earth-orbiting telescope operated by JPL, makes the possibility of an undetected killer asteroid striking earth far less likely. The WISE observatory is designed to find, track, and analyze Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), asteroids in low earth orbit with diameters larger than 330 ft (100m). If they measure 330 ft (100m) up to 3,300 ft (1km), they are considered medium-size asteroids. WISE has already located 4,200 such objects, with an estimated 15,000 still to be pinpointed. NASA’s objective is to eventually complete a survey of all PHAs, their size, composition, trajectory, and degree of threat.

The largest and considered most dangerous PHAs are those with diameters exceeding 3,300 ft (1km). 911 out of an existing total of 981 (93%) of these largest asteroids have been located and analyzed. Some are the size of a small mountain, and if one were to impact our planet the consequences would be devastating. In the past, a PHA – one with a diameter of 330 ft (100m) or more — has struck earth on the average of once every one million years. But now NASA has the ability to zero in on and dispatch robotic spacecraft to any asteroid in earth orbit. It’s possible that a vehicle could land on and apply enough rocket power to the threatening asteroid to move its trajectory away from earth.

When you consider that there have been no recorded human fatalities from meteor or asteroid strikes in modern history, but that more than 1,200,000 die every year in automobile accidents around the world, the asteroid risk factor is exceptionally low compared with driving your car.