Natural disasters across the globe have made 2011 the costliest on record in terms of property damage, and that's just six months in, according to a report released Tuesday by a leading insurer that tracks disasters.
Moreover, that record builds on a trend of recent costly years — which means more expensive insurance for consumers over the long haul.
The first six months saw $265 billion in economic losses, well above the previous record of $220 billion (adjusted for inflation) set for all of 2005 (the year Hurricane Katrina struck), according to Munich Re, a multinational that insures insurance companies.
Japan's earthquake and tsunami last March account for the biggest chunk ($210 billion), as well as most deaths (15,500 dead with 7,300 still counted as missing), but even without that cost factored in, overall losses still exceed the 10-year average, the company stated in its half-year review (PDF file).
After Japan, the costliest disasters so far this year were New Zealand's earthquake in February ($20 billion), the twister outbreak in the U.S. Southeast ($7.5 billion), and Australia's flooding in December-January ($7.3 billion).
2011 is "one for the record books," Bob Hartwig, head of the Insurance Information Institute, told reporters being briefed on the study. "We are rewriting the financial and economic history of disasters on a global scale."
For the United States, 98 events (storms, flooding, fires and earthquakes) left $27 billion in economic losses, more than double the 10-year average of $11.8 billion, Munich Re stated.
The total number of events is trending up as well: The first half of 2011 has already produced more events than most entire years before 2006, the company found.
The vast majority of U.S. damage, $23.5 billion, was from twisters and other severe storms. Twisters have also claimed nearly 600 lives this year.
2011 will go down as "the year of the tornado," predicted Carl Hedde, a risk analyst at Munich Re.
The climate connection
Munich Re wasn't shy about drawing a connection between climate change and what it sees as longer windows for extreme weather.
While the trend for earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions is fairly stable, severe weather events are on the upswing, said Peter Hoppe, who runs the company's Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center.
There is "higher potential of thunderstorm development in the last decade" and "more dates per year during which storms can develop," he added.
Munich Re has factored in increased population, and thus more property, to see if those are behind the rise in economic losses.
But the data show those alone "cannot explain" the increase, "so there is a significant trend in these losses," he said.
Natural events like La Nina and El Nino, ocean cycles that alter weather systems, are certainly factors as well, but warming temperatures appear to be adding a layer "on top" of that natural variability, Hoppe said.
He also cited a climate connection between Australia's severe floods and rising ocean temperatures off the coast there. That means "more evaporation and higher potential for these extreme downpours," he said.
"It can only be explained by global warming," he added.
The enormous losses translate into more payouts by insurers, which reduces their bottom lines.
"It's definitely the worst half year for the insurance industry" on record, said Hoppe.
So what does the trend mean for consumers? Higher insurance rates.
While "rates do not bounce up and down based on events in a single year," the previous three years were also costly in the United States, Hartwig said.
"So we're in the midst of a longer term trend," he added, citing the fact that three of the 15 most expensive events globally happened in last 18 months: Japan's quake/tsunami, and earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile. If you add the U.S. tornadoes this spring as a single event, he noted, that'd make it in the top 15 as well.
In the United States, the increase in events is "pushing up the cost of providing insurance in many parts," Hartwig said.
"Insurers have begun to reflect that in their rates and will continue to do so."