WASHINGTON - Global warming is leading to such severe storms, droughts and heat waves that nations should prepare for an unprecedented onslaught of deadly and costly weather disasters, an international panel of climate scientists said in a new report issued Wednesday.
The greatest threat from extreme weather is to highly populated, poor regions of the world, the report warns, but no corner of the globe - from Mumbai to Miami - is immune. The document, by a Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists, forecasts stronger tropical cyclones and more frequent heat waves, deluges and droughts.
The 594-page report blames the scale of recent and future disasters on a combination of man-made climate change, population shifts and poverty.
In the past, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, founded in 1988 by the United Nations, has focused on the slow inexorable rise of temperatures and oceans as part of global warming. This report by the panel is the first to look at the less common but far more noticeable extreme weather changes, which lately have been costing on average about $80 billion a year in damage.
"We mostly experience weather and climate through the extreme," said one of the report's top editors, Chris Field, an ecologist with the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "That's where we have the losses. That's where we have the insurance payments. That's where things have the potential to fall apart.
"There are lots of places that are already marginal for one reason or another," Field said. But it's not just poor areas: "There is disaster risk almost everywhere."
The report specifically points to New Orleans during 2005's Hurricane Katrina, noting that "developed countries also suffer severe disasters because of social vulnerability and inadequate disaster protection."
In coastal areas of the United States, property damage from hurricanes and rising seas could increase by 20 percent by 2030, the report said. And in parts of Texas, the area vulnerable to storm surge could more than double by 2080.
Already U.S. insured losses from weather disasters have soared from an average of about $3 billion a year in the 1980s to about $20 billion a year in the last decade, even after adjusting for inflation, said Mark Way, director of sustainability at insurance giant Swiss Re. Last year that total rose to $35 billion, but much of that was from tornadoes, which scientists are unable to connect with global warming. U.S. insured losses are just a fraction of the overall damage from weather disasters each year.
Globally, the scientists say that some places, particularly parts of Mumbai in India, could become uninhabitable from floods, storms and rising seas. In 2005, over 24 hours nearly 3 feet of rain fell on the city, killing more than 1,000 people and causing massive damage. Roughly 2.7 million people live in areas at risk of flooding.
Other cities at lesser risk include Miami, Shanghai, Bangkok, China's Guangzhou, Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, Myanmar's Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) and India's Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). The people of small island nations, such as the Maldives, may also need to abandon their homes because of rising seas and fierce storms.
"The decision about whether or not to move is achingly difficult, and I think it's one that the world community will have to face with increasing frequency in the future," Field said in a telephone news conference Wednesday.
This report - the summary of which was issued in November - is unique because it emphasizes managing risks and how taking precautions can work, Field said. In fact, the panel's report uses the word "risk" 4,387 times.
Field pointed to storm- and flood-prone Bangladesh, an impoverished country that has learned from its past disasters. In 1970, a Category 3 tropical cyclone named Bhola killed more than 300,000 people. In 2007, the stronger Cyclone Sidr killed only 4,200 people. Despite the loss of life, Bangladesh is considered a success story because it was better prepared and invested in warning and disaster prevention, Field said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: www.ipcc.ch