Natural Disasters

Tropical cyclones cause highest losses

Natural disasters of 2019 in figures

The main events of the 2019 natural disaster year were enormous losses from tropical cyclones in Asia, widespread flooding in India and China, and severe storms in the US. Although California was left relatively unscathed by wildfires this year, exceptionally large bushfires were still raging in southeastern Australia at the end of the year.

09.01.2020
Overall and insured losses from natural catastrophes 1980-2019 © Munich Re / NatCatSERVICE
Overall and insured losses from natural catastrophes 1980-2019
Overall losses from natural disasters in 2019 came to US$ 150bn, approximately the same level as in 2013 (US$ 140bn). At around US$ 52bn, insured losses made up one-third of overall losses, which is roughly in line with the loss burden in 2016. Worldwide, a total of 820 relevant loss events were recorded in the NatCatSERVICE database. Disasters claimed the lives of some 9,000 people during the year.
 

Losses much lower than the average for the last few years

Both overall losses and insured losses from natural disasters in 2019 were well below the figures of the last three years. The US$ 150bn in overall losses was also below the ten-year average of US$ 187bn. Nevertheless, a large number of events with losses in the low billions meant that the total was again well in excess of the US$ 100bn mark. With significantly higher losses, 2019 therefore contrasted sharply with the benign years of 2014 and 2015. This illustrates the volatile relationship between individual loss years and shows that the statistics are dominated by both individual events and an accumulation of events.

Of the 820 relevant natural disasters registered, 33 events produced overall losses of more than US$ 1bn. Japan, China, India, the US and the Caribbean were particularly affected. Insured losses for nine of these events reached or exceeded the US$ 1bn mark; all of these were tropical cyclones, storms with flooding, or tornadoes.

The year’s most extreme natural catastrophes at a glance

Number of natural disasters

In 2019, 820 events were registered in the Munich Re NatCatSERVICE database. Of these, 7% were geophysical events such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, 38% were storms, 45% floods, flash floods and landslides, and 10% were heatwaves, cold spells and wildfires. Generally speaking, the distribution follows the long-term trend towards a greater number of storms and floods. The worst-affected region was Asia (43%), followed by North America, Central America and the Caribbean (20%), Africa (15%), Europe (12%) and Australia/Oceania (2%).

In terms of the four catastrophe classes defined by Munich Re (https://natcatservice.munichre.com/), which are based on the overall loss and/or the number of victims, 15% of the events in 2019 fall into the two categories of major and devastating catastrophes. The figure for moderately severe events was 33%, and minor losses accounted for 52%. The category of minor losses is the most heavily reported. However, in contrast to the number of events, the effect of many small events is not relevant for loss statistics.

Number of victims continues to fall

In 2019, approximately 9,000 people lost their lives in natural disasters. The victim toll is well below the averages for both the last 10 years (37,400) and the last 30 years (51,600). 2019 is therefore one of the three years (with 1984 and 2014) with the lowest number of victims since 1980. Flood events claimed the lives of almost 60% of the victims, followed by storms, which accounted for some 30% of deaths. Geophysical events in the last year, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, were responsible for just 3% of all fatalities, while 7% fell victim to climatological events such as heatwaves, cold spells and wildfires. This deviates significantly from the long-term figures, because from 1980 to 2018 almost 50% of all fatalities were caused by earthquakes, volcanoes or tsunamis. Most of the victims were in Asia (58%) and in Africa (29%).

Continents

Asia with high share of natural catastrophe losses in 2019 © Munich Re / NatCatSERVICE
Asia with high share of natural catastrophe losses in 2019

Asia

Asia accounted for 43% of events, 48% of fatalities and 50% of overall losses in 2019. Over the course of the year, the continent was disproportionately affected by natural disasters, particularly tropical cyclones and floods. Overall losses came to US$ 75bn, of which almost US$ 19bn was insured. Typhoons Hagibis and Faxai in Japan and Lekima in China were responsible for the bulk of the losses. The loss burden from these three storms alone came to US$ 34bn. There was also widespread monsoon flooding in China and India. An earthquake in China in June numbered among the events causing overall losses of more than US$ 1bn.

Australia/Oceania

Australia was the country with the most extreme contrasts in 2019. At the start of the year, its northeastern region struggled with exceptionally heavy rainfall, which triggered extensive floods and landslides. More than 12,000 homes were damaged, and over 1,000 people had to be evacuated. Overall losses came to US$ 1.7bn, of which almost US$ 1bn was insured. In the southeast of Australia in particular, extreme heatwaves and drought over the course of the year led to devastating wildfires that are unprecedented in the country’s history. A state of emergency was declared in New South Wales and Sydney. Thick clouds of smoke hung over the state capital for weeks, severely affecting the lives of its millions of residents. A loss estimate was not possible by the end of the year, since many fires were still burning.

New Zealand experienced a tragic accident when the White Island volcano erupted in December, killing 18 people.

North America (including the Caribbean and Central America)

Roughly 20% of all relevant natural disasters in 2019 were recorded in North America, including the Caribbean and Central America. These accounted for 36% of overall losses and 55% of insured losses. Overall losses totalled US$ 55bn, of which US$ 29bn was insured. This roughly corresponds to the figures from 2016, and well below the insured losses of US$ 53bn for 2018. Loss events included Hurricane Dorian, which caused billions of dollars in damage in late August/early September, mainly in the Caribbean and especially in the Bahamas. The incredibly powerful storm largely spared the US coast.

Heavy losses also resulted from severe weather, floods and a winter storm in the US. A mixture of snowmelt triggered by unusually warm temperatures in March and storms with torrential rain led to sustained and extensive flooding in Nebraska and later in the year on the Mississippi. This events mainly affected agricultural production and accounted for US$ 48bn of the overall losses. US$ 24bn of this was insured.

South America

In this region, 60 events caused overall losses of some US$ 2bn. Due to low insurance penetration, however, the insured portion was very small. From a global perspective, the continent accounted for 8% of events and 7% of the victims, yet just 1% of overall losses.

Africa

Two powerful cyclones in quick succession, Idai and Kenneth, struck the coast of East Africa in March and April. Mozambique was particularly affected, but also the neighbouring countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe. More than 1,000 people lost their lives in the two events. Idai was the most serious humanitarian natural disaster of 2019. In addition to the storm’s high wind speeds, storm surges and torrential rainfall caused extensive flooding that extended well into the interior. Entire neighbourhoods were devastated and agricultural production was almost completely wiped out. Overall losses from both storms came to US$ 2.5bn, of which only a small amount was insured.

Damages from thunderstorms in the Mediterranean region © picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com
Damages from thunderstorms in the Mediterranean region

Europe
In Europe, Winter Storm Eberhard in March 2019 caused extensive damage in Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Overall losses were in excess of US$ 2bn, of which US$ 1.3bn was insured. Of particular note were storms bringing flash floods and inundation that repeatedly hit the Mediterranean region. The countries mainly affected were Italy, France and Spain. Losses ran into billions of dollars.

One of the year’s rare earthquake events occurred in November in Albania. Total losses came to US$ 700m and 52 people lost their lives.

Petra Löw
Head of NatCatSERVICE Climate & Public Sector Business Development
Ernst Rauch
Global Head Climate & Public Sector Business Development
Chief Climate and Geo Scientist
Mark Bove
Mark Bove
Senior Research Scientist at Munich Reinsurance America, Inc.
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