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| Earth on Dec 31, 2011

Top five natural disasters of 2011

2011 has more than its fair share of natural disasters. Here are EarthSky weather blogger Matt Daniel’s picks for the top five.

2011 has brought many extreme weather and natural disasters across the world. We have seen it all: deadly flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, wildfires, snowstorms, haboobs, and wind storms. Although all of these events typically occur every year (and although I can’t vouch for this scientifically), it seems as if, in 2011, we had more than our fair share of disasters. I’ve seen a list of disasters on other sites, but, in this post, I’ll go into some detail about how I selected my picks for the top five natural disasters of 2011.

Tornado damage in Pleasant Grove, Alabama. Image Credit: Matt Daniel

These are the questions I asked myself when selecting the top five natural disasters of 2011. How many people were affected? How many casualties occurred from this event? Did it have economic impacts? Did it change or alter the way of living in that area for the remainder of the year?

Disasters are a part of life, and they have naturally occurred for centuries. So I also asked myself what factors made 2011 seem so rife with disasters. Electronics technology – and social media – surely both play into it. With electronics such as smartphones and iPads – and social media such as Twitter and Facebook – information can be shared almost instantly when disasters strike. Just like many people I know, I typically get my news from Twitter before any other news source. In today’s age, when something bad happens, we hear about it sooner. Random sources (your friends, or friends of friends) will update their statuses on social media websites. People retweet those statuses, and before you know it, millions of people have read about some disaster before traditional media has had time to publish the news.

Also, urban sprawl is increasing. Both large and small cities are growing in size and population. With more people in the world, disasters can actually increase the number of casualties and injuries that take place. On the other hand, advances in science and technology should prepare us for these disasters before they hit. However, in some instances, such as the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, technology was not enough.

So, let’s take a look at my picks for the top five natural disasters of 2011.

5) Joplin, Missouri EF-5 Tornado

Radar images (reflectivity/velocity) showing the tornado signature and debris ball as the EF5 tornado pushes out of Joplin, MO

On May 22, 2011, a violent and destructive EF-5 tornado with winds exceeding 200 miles per hour formed and destroyed the city of Joplin, Missouri. Early in the morning, the Storm Prediction Center initally had the state of Missouri in a slight risk for severe weather. By that afternoon, most of Missouri was upgraded to a moderate risk after meteorologists realized the environment was better primed for stronger storms and violent, large tornadoes. May 22, 2011 was not expected to become an extremely dangerous day, although the upcoming pattern was recognized to become extremely active across the central portions of the United States. The Joplin EF-5 tornado killed 158 people, and completely destroyed the majority of the city. It was the deadliest single tornado to hit the United States since modern tornado record keeping began in 1950. It ended up being the seventh deadliest tornado in history, with nearly three billion dollars in insured damages. The Joplin EF-5 tornado is considered the most expensive tornado in world history. Via social media, such as youtube and other video outlets, we were able to gather firsthand accounts of the Joplin tornado. I remember watching Mike Bettes from the Weather Channel arriving into Joplin, Missouri minutes after it hit the city. The damage looked very similar to the damage that hit Alabama back in late April, and Mike Bettes became speechless after the reality of the damage hit him. The Joplin tornado ranked as the sixth billion-dollar disaster for the United States, with many more to come.

Damage in the heart of Joplin, Missouri. Image Credit: NOAA

4) April 27 Tornado Outbreak in U.S. Southeast

Destruction in Pleasant Grove, Alabama on April 27, 2011. Image Credit: Matt Daniel

The month of April 2011 contained waves and waves of extreme severe weather across the United States. However, nothing was as severe or damaging than the events that occurred on April 27, 2011 in the U.S. Southeast. High instability, rich Gulf of Mexico moisture, strong jet stream, and a strong area of low pressure met at the right time to create a deadly outbreak of tornadoes from April 25 through April 28. Meteorologists saw this event evolving days before it happened, and they did an excellent job providing the public information regarding the potential outbreak. The outbreak rivaled and surpassed what was called the Super Outbreak of 1974 which killed 315 people. On April 27, 2011, a total of 321 people died, with 240 deaths from Alabama. The event caused more than $7.3 billion insured losses. From a meteorological perspective, I will always remember this day. I have never seen such a violent outbreak of violent, long track tornadoes in my life. Values were off the charts. The April 27, 2011 outbreak will likely be a generational event, meaning we’ll likely never experience a system with such monstrosity. The entire tornado outbreak produced 343 tornadoes, with four of those tornadoes becoming EF-5’s. The most destructive tornadoes occurred across Cullman, Tuscaloosa, Pleasant Grove, Concord, and Hackleburg, Alabama. However, violent tornadoes also hit surrounding states such as Mississippi as a EF-5 tornado hit Smithville. The magnitude of this event is the main reason why it has to be ranked higher than the Joplin, Missouri tornado. It impacted more territory and lives, and will go down as one of the greatest tornado outbreaks in decades.

3) Tropical Storm Washi

An aerial view shows shanties damaged by flash floods brought by Typhoon Washi (Sendong) in Cagayan De Oro city, southern Philippines December 18, 2011. Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

A few weeks ago, I wrote up a post about Tropical Storm Washi that hit the Philippines on December 15, 2011. Washi, known as Sendong in the Philippines, produced extreme flooding across central and southern Philippines. Washi was a moderate tropical storm producing maximum sustained winds of 55 mph. It is considered to be the most destructive and deadliest storm of 2011, with the death count now climbing to 1500 people. The storm intensified and dumped six to eight inches of rain in a short period of time producing massive flooding and mudslides across the region. The region was hit in the overnight hours, and without a flood warning plan, many people were caught off guard and became helpless. For more information regarding Tropical Storm Washi, please visit our post on EarthSky.

2) East African Drought

Drought near Somalia. Image Credit: odexoUSA

I debated adding the drought and wildfires of Texas and Oklahoma in the top five list, but after coming across this article, it only makes sense as to why the east African drought deserves to be in the top three. A large drought occurred during the months of June and July across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritea and Djibouti in eastern Africa. Somalia was one of the hardest hit areas, and food and water became extremely scarce in the area. The United Nations declared parts of southern Somalia to be official famine zones. During the summer, nearly three million Somalis were in need of medical assistance. It is estimated that nearly 30,000 children died due to famine. Delivery of aid has been extremely scarce in the area due to the activities by an Islamic militant group called the al-Shabab. This same group is probably responsible for many other deaths because they have also prevented people from leaving the famine zones. Dr. Jeff Masters from Weather Underground has an excellent article about the drought and famine that has killed thousands of people. Fortunately, recent rains in October and November have helped the region to grow vegetation and have drinking water.

1) Japan Earthquake/Tsunami

Image Credit: Tex Texin

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011 easily holds the number one position for the worst natural disaster of 2011.

The quake only lasted five minutes, but the aftermath and impact of the event has had huge implications for Japan for years to come. The earthquake that hit was one of the five strongest quakes ever recorded on Earth. It was 6.0 miles deep (underwater) and shortened Earth’s day by 1.8 millionths of a second. The earthquake was a 160 times more powerful than the 6.3 earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand in February, 2011. Whats more, the Japan quake created a large tsunami that was became responsible for most of the extreme damage. The tsunami reached heights near ten meters (30 feet) and traveled five kilometers (3 miles) inland. Over 15,000 people died from the combination of the earthquake and tsunami. After the tsunami hit, fears of meltdowns in the nuclear reactors from the Fukushima power plants became the top news story. As of today, we are still unsure how much radiation leaked and how it will impact society in the future.

Check out this recently released video of the tsunami that hit Japan:

Although these disasters brought a lot of tragedy to those affected, it also brought unity to the communities that were hit hard. When a disaster strikes, it binds people together. When I visited the tornado rampaged areas west of Birmingham, Alabama after the April 27 tornadoes, I saw people helping one another. Complete strangers were providing water, food, and extra hands to clean up the large amount of debris left behind from the destructive EF-4 tornado that had pushed through Tuscaloosa. Everyone affected will always remember that day in their lives. They will recall the exact moment when the disaster struck, and remember where they were as the event unfolded. 2011 brought droughts, wildfires, famine, flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and snowstorms. What will 2012 bring? We will have to wait and see! Happy New Year!

Bottom line: We saw flooding, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, wildfires, snowstorms, haboobs, and wind storms in 2011: more than our fair share of disasters. This post contains my picks for the top five natural disasters of 2011.