- Associated Press - Sunday, December 19, 2010

This was the year the Earth struck back.

Earthquakes, heat waves, floods, volcanoes, super typhoons, blizzards, landslides and droughts killed at least a quarter million people in 2010 _ the deadliest year in more than a generation. More people were killed worldwide by natural disasters this year than have been killed in terrorism attacks in the past 40 years combined.

“It just seemed like it was back-to-back and it came in waves,” said Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. It handled a record number of disasters in 2010.

“The term `100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.”

And we have ourselves to blame most of the time, scientists and disaster experts say.

Even though many catastrophes have the ring of random chance, the hand of man made this a particularly deadly, costly, extreme and weird year for everything from wild weather to earthquakes.

Poor construction and development practices conspire to make earthquakes more deadly than they need be. More people live in poverty in vulnerable buildings in crowded cities. That means that when the ground shakes, the river breaches, or the tropical cyclone hits, more people die.

Disasters from the Earth, such as earthquakes and volcanoes “are pretty much constant,” said Andreas Schraft, vice president of catastrophic perils for the Geneva-based insurance giant Swiss Re. “All the change that’s made is man-made.”

The January earthquake that killed well more than 220,000 people in Haiti is a perfect example. Port-au-Prince has nearly three times as many people _ many of them living in poverty _ and more poorly built shanties than it did 25 years ago. So had the same quake hit in 1985 instead of 2010, total deaths would have probably been in the 80,000 range, said Richard Olson, director of disaster risk reduction at Florida International University.

In February, an earthquake that was more than 500 times stronger than the one that struck Haiti hit an area of Chile that was less populated, better constructed, and not as poor. Chile’s bigger quake caused fewer than 1,000 deaths.

Climate scientists say Earth’s climate also is changing thanks to man-made global warming, bringing extreme weather, such as heat waves and flooding.

In the summer, one weather system caused oppressive heat in Russia, while farther south it caused flooding in Pakistan that inundated 62,000 square miles, about the size of Wisconsin. That single heat-and-storm system killed almost 17,000 people, more people than all the worldwide airplane crashes in the past 15 years combined.

“It’s a form of suicide, isn’t it? We build houses that kill ourselves (in earthquakes). We build houses in flood zones that drown ourselves,” said Roger Bilham, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado. “It’s our fault for not anticipating these things. You know, this is the Earth doing its thing.”

No one had to tell a mask-wearing Vera Savinova how bad it could get. She is a 52-year-old administrator in a dental clinic who in August took refuge from Moscow’s record heat, smog and wildfires.

“I think it is the end of the world,” she said. “Our planet warns us against what would happen if we don’t care about nature.”

Story Continues →