With the news seemingly filled with reports of extreme weather devastating entire communities and leading to hundreds of deaths, we ask: are natural disasters increasing?
Mexico has experienced two deadly earthquakes in less than two weeks, the Caribbean and parts of America have been devastated by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Jose all in a short space of time.
And across the ocean, New Zealand was hit by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake just a matter of hours after one hit Mexico City. With all this devastation at the hands of mother nature, are things getting worse, or does it just seem like it?
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Paul O’Hare, a senior lecturer in urban geography and development at Manchester Metropolitan University said while it’s a simple question to ask if natural disasters have increased, the answer is more complex.
He believes we need to look at the human impact on the climate.
Mr O’Hare told UNILAD:
What we would say is there is no such thing as a ‘natural disaster’, these things are sociologically and economically determined. Yes earthquakes kill people, but that’s because people live in earthquake-prone areas.
It’s not just about the hazard itself, it’s what makes us more vulnerable.
On the one hand, we think there are more, but there’s what we call the Anthropocene. This is the idea we’re now living in an era where humans have changed the climate and the planet so we’re living in a new geological era, it’s very possible there are more climate-related disasters and in all likelihood we’re all causing that.
Then there’s also the potential we’re better at recording disasters, technology has advanced and scientific research. We are getting better at noticing these ‘disasters’, there are now more and more people because of the fact there is a higher population, people are now living in disaster-prone areas when once they wouldn’t have.
We do think they’re increasing though, and we can also argue the media is getting better at reporting these things, again there is a technological change there.
If you dig deeper, how we record them is different and we live for longer as well. In the industrial era, we lived until about the age of 35, whereas now, it’s more than double that, so we see more of these things unfold.
But there does seem to be an upwards trend of these ‘natural disasters’, certainly in climate change forms and they’re intensifying and they will probably continue to intensify over time.
The Met Office said there is ongoing research into whether or not climate change is having an impact on hurricanes.
Emma Sharples, a Met Office forecaster, told UNILAD:
Although hurricanes develop in areas of warm water (such as the west African coast), and climate change will increase sea surface temperatures (SST), more research is needed to understand any relationship between higher SSTs and hurricane frequency or intensity. Wind shear, which can cause hurricanes to break down, could also increase with climate change.
There is a clearer association between climate change and hurricane impacts: a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, and rising sea levels boost the height of storm surges associated with hurricanes. Freshwater flooding from extensive rainfall and coastal flooding from storm surges have been devastating impacts of hurricanes from this year’s season in the Atlantic.
— Met Office (@metoffice) September 21, 2017
Michael Williams of the World Meteorological Organization, said the cluster of earthquakes with hurricanes is coincidence, and said the ‘two phenomena are unrelated’.
He told UNILAD:
Climate change is already raising sea levels, which worsens sea surges. It is warming the atmosphere, so that it can hold more moisture. And it is warming the ocean, so that more energy is available to hurricanes.
As a result, more intense hurricanes with more intense rainfall would be consistent with what we expect from climate change.
The earth has been super scary lately. If you've recently gone through a natural disaster, my thoughts are with you. Stay strong?❤️
— Mykie (@Glam_And_Gore) September 19, 2017
So nobody truly knows if the frequency of extreme weather and ‘natural disasters’ is increasing, but there is a firm belief climate change and human impact is having an effect.
Our thoughts are with anybody affected by the recent storms.