Natural Disasters

The year 2010 will be remembered as one of extremes in nature. Thick blankets of snow brought the United States government to a standstill for a week. Massive floodwaters consumed a full fifth of Pakistan. A relentless heat wave destroyed one-third of Russia’s wheat crop as weeks of wildfires crept uncomfortably close to that country’s radioactive wasteland.

Some people insist that none of this chaos is related to global climate change, placing the blame squarely on El Nino, a natural warming of the Pacific, and La Nina, a corresponding ocean cooling. Scientists working for the United Nations suggest otherwise: Ghassem Asrar, director of the U.N.’s World Climate Research Programme, pointed the finger at climate change, saying it has created “blocking episodes.” These in turn prevent humidity or heat from dispersing naturally, thereby creating long-lasting snow or rain storms, or extensive hot, dry spells.

If this is true — and we know with certainty that the ocean temperature has risen by one degree Fahrenheit — the world will have more of these freak storms and unbearable heat waves in 2011.

Of course, not all catastrophic natural disasters can be blamed on changing weather patterns. A horrific earthquake ripped through Haiti, followed shortly by two more in Chile and China. The trio caused people to wonder if the number of earthquakes was on the rise. The short answer has been no; however, more quakes hit densely populated areas in 2010.

As distant as some tragedies may seem, they disrupt the delicate balance of the international food economy. Floods and fire that wipe out crops in Russia, Pakistan, and Peru drive up food prices for the poorest nations, which spend more than 75 percent of their household incomes on imported grains.

Bets are on that more extreme events will take place in the coming year — just look at how much people are spending on disaster insurance. And stock up on nonperishables and get your snowshoes ready; we’re now in La Nina, and she’s promising a blisteringly cold winter.

–Lisa Hix

Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and former Yahoo! editor who’s been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She’s currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.