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A century of global deaths from disasters

With almost minute-by-minute updates on what’s happening in the world, we are constantly reminded of the latest disaster. These stories are, of course, important but they do not give us a sense of how the toll of disasters has changed over time. 

For most of us, it is hard to know whether any given year was a particularly deadly one in the context of previous years.

To understand the devastating toll of disasters today, and in the past, we have built a Natural Disasters Data Explorer which provides estimates of fatalities, displacement and economic damage for every country since 1900. This is based on data sourced from EM-DAT; a project that undertakes the important work of building these incredibly detailed histories of disasters.1 

In this visualization I give a sense of how the global picture has evolved over the last century. It shows the estimated annual death toll – from all disasters at the top, followed by a breakdown by type. The size of the bubble represents the total death toll for that year.

I’ve labeled most of the years with the largest death tolls. This usually provokes the follow-up question: “Why? What event happened?”. So I’ve also noted large-scale events that contributed to the majority – but not necessarily all – of the deaths in that year. 

For example, the estimated global death toll from storms in 2008 was approximately 141,000. 138,366 of these deaths occurred in Cyclone Margis, which struck Myanmar, and is labeled on the chart.

What we see is that in the 20th century, it was common to have years where the death toll was in the millions. This was usually the result of major droughts or floods. Often these would lead to famines. My colleague Joe Hasell looks at the long history of famines here.

Improved food security, resilience to other disasters, and better national and international responses mean that the world has not experienced death tolls of this scale in many decades. Famines today are usually driven by civil war and political unrest.

In most years, the death toll from disasters is now in the range of 10,000 to 20,000 people. In the most fatal years – which tend to be those with major earthquakes or cyclones – this can reach tens to hundreds of thousands.

This trend does not mean that disasters have become less frequent, or less intense. It means the world today is much better at preventing deaths from disasters than in the past. This will become increasingly important in our response and adaptation to climate change.

Deaths from disasters bubbles 1