Are Natural Disasters Becoming Our New Reality?

It seems as though natural disasters have been on the rise for the past few years. They wreak havoc in vulnerable and impoverished communities and cost millions in aid funding. And with earthquakes, hurricanes, and bushfires filling our news more than ever, it’s impossible not to wonder – are natural disasters becoming more frequent?

Are Natural Disasters “Natural”

Some natural disasters occur due to forces beyond our control. Tsunamis and earthquakes, for example, are triggered by the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates. Fluctuation in solar radiation that enters the atmosphere and warms up oceans causes storms in summer and blizzards in winter. 

So, the common denominator of all natural hazards is energy, or more specifically, its movement within our planet’s system. But, despite these being normal processes, scientists warn that no disaster occurs “naturally”, for three reasons. 

  1. Human activity is hindering the Earth’s system. An excellent example of this would be climate change. Through various processes, we are introducing energy into the system. Consequently, the excess energy heats up the Earth. This increases the chances of more intense and frequent hydro-meteorological disasters, such as bushfires, heat waves, floods, and tropical cyclones. 
  2. We are (mis)handling natural systems. Mangrove forests, for example, are being removed to make room for infrastructure, agricultural land, various settlements, etc. But the mangroves act as a buffer, absorbing storm impacts and preventing erosion. Similarly, coral reefs – which are rapidly dying out due to pollution, coral mining, and rising temperatures – protect the coastline from the impact of storms, hurricanes, and erosion. 
  3. Human settlements are being built in vulnerable geographic regions where chances of natural hazards occurring are pretty high. This especially pertains to communities that inhabit areas that are at great risk of landslides. 

Is the Increase Real

According to the International disasters database, the number of reported natural hazards in recent decades has been steadily rising, from 78 reported in 1970 to 315 in 2018. However, experts suggest that some of the increase could be misleading because technological advancements have enabled much better communication and reporting. 

Nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of the increment is real and, in great part, a result of the increase in hydro-meteorological catastrophes. These include tsunamis, droughts, typhoons, hurricanes, and floods. In contrast, geologic hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, and landslides have remained fairly uniform throughout recent decades. 

Urbanization and Flooding

Part of the problem is the unplanned and accelerated urbanization in flood-prone areas, in which the likelihood of coastal floods and flash floods that severely affect towns and villages is alarmingly high. Moreover, vast areas are covered with cement, meaning the soil cannot absorb the water, so it collects, becoming faster and heavier, ultimately causing much bigger floods. 

On the brighter side, the number of deaths related to natural disasters has been in steady decline over the past decades, mostly due to better prevention programs and preparedness. However, the number of people displaced, injured, or left homeless is increasing. 

So, yes, natural disasters are on the rise, but there isn’t a simple answer to the question of why. This is because most natural hazards are a result of a series of interactions between human activity, our interference with the Earth’s natural system, and the rising vulnerability of various communities around the world. 

[1] “Scientists: Natural Disasters Becoming More Common.” LiveScience [Online] Available at: www.livescience.com/414-scientists-natural-disasters-common.html [Accessed on: 13 July 2020]

[2] “Are Natural Disasters on the Rise?” The Conversation [Online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/explainer-are-natural-disasters-on-the-rise-39232 [Accessed on: 13 July 2020]

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