Natural Disasters vs Natural Catastrophes

Super Typhoons in the last 12 months!!   Rick Di Maio  Dept of Aviation/Physics/SPCErick3 The recent trend of weather events becoming disastrous and even catastrophic has brought the plight of many far away countries and cultures to our daily newscasts within a few hours after they occur.  As the earth’s climate becomes more variable and global population exceeds 7 billion, it becomes important to address these issues.The question then becomes, when does a hazardous weather event become a natural disaster and how is it elevated to a catastrophe? Simply put, a hazardous weather event is a naturally occurring event that may cause injury and/or death if not correctly predicted. Property damage may also result if the event covers a large geographical area with a large population. A natural disaster is a naturally occurring weather event that impacts a large geographical area with many people. Typically, property and infrastructure damage is on a large scale. A catastrophe occurs when inadequate forecasts are produced, evacuation of residents is not carried out and communication is lacking. As a result, fatalities and property damage are extremely high and the economic output becomes greatly reduced over a long period of time. The number of global disasters continues to increases mainly due to property damage and re-insurance even though forecasts, public awareness of such upcoming events and proper evacuation plans have mitigated even further losses. Disaster The map below shows 9 events which occurred last year in the United States, each totalling more than $1Billion.  In 2012, Hurricane Sandy contributed more than $65 billion in losses while Hurricane Katrina totaled more than $130 billion in 2005. 2013events In the past two weeks, two Category 5 Typhoons developed in the West Pacific but weakened before they hit Japan.  While Typhoon Phanphone killed 3 people in southern Japan and produced 10″ rainfall and 70-80 mph in the Tokyo, it did not reach disastrous levels.  Several US airlines delayed flights 6-8 hours from arriving in Tokyo and Osaka, but they still operated based on the weakening nature of the storm and excellent weather forecasts from meteorologists.  In the Aviation Department, students in the Topics in Operational Meteorology class followed the path of this storm for over 5 days and tracked local forecasts from the Japanese Meteorological Agency  (  and the operations of United Airlines. Preparing a “real-time” case study on this storm allows the student to bring this experience to the “real-world” once they get there!     A week later, they tracked another Category 5 typhoon, Vongfong.  This storm weakened well before it hit Japan as it crossed over the cooler waters left behind by Phanphone.  In retrospect, both storms posed huge risks to the boating community but weakened considerably before hitting land and thus remained hazards, not disasters nor catastrophes. Below is a satellite image of the remnants of Phanphone over the North Pacific and Vongfong before reaching Japan. In the far lower left is a Category 3 Tropical Cyclone Hudhud.  This very intense storm produced 100 mph winds and 12-15 feet storm surge waves along the coast killing 6 people. Damage estimates have not yet been calculated but the evacuation of 300,000 people along the coast due to excellent weather forecasts from the Indian Meteorological Agency ( and cooperation from local municipalities help reduce greatly the loss of life.  While this can be categorized as natural disaster on a small scale, it certainly will not approach approach catastrophic proportions.  Unfortunately, similar storms in the Bay of Bengal might have killed well over 100,000 20-30 years ago due to poor forecasts, limited evacuation plans and near zero communication to the many poor people who live near the coast. rick1 Diagram showing track of Hudhud and Vongfong Rick4 As we read this information, it is important to note that we have become a more global society and educating our students about events such as these, good or bad news, is important.  Here is an excellent website from the United Nations can than be used in any discipline when discussing the impact natural disasters have in different parts of the world.   Rick Di Maio   Dept of Aviation/Physics/SPCE

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