Natural disasters, led by catastrophic earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand, cost a record $380 billion in 2011, more than double the figure for 2010 and triple the average for the past decade, insurance experts reported on Wednesday, Jan. 4.
Insurance industry losses from these disasters reached a record $105 billion in 2011, according to Munich Re, the world's biggest reinsurer.
The cost to insurers from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March, which caused nearly 16,000 deaths, was estimated at $35 billion to $40 billion, the company said in its annual review of the prior year's natural disasters.
That equaled the insured cost of all the natural disasters to strike the United States during the year, it said.
An earthquake in New Zealand in February added a further $13 billion to insurers' claims payout for the year, Munich Re said.
Global economic losses from natural disasters were two-thirds higher than in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath devastated parts of the U.S. Gulf states.
While monetary costs were high in 2011, fatalities worldwide were extremely low, at 27,000, compared to 296,000 deaths from natural disasters in 2010, Munich Re said in an online briefing.
The vast majority of deaths -- 15,840 -- occurred in Japan in the earthquake and tsunami that slammed Fukushima. Landslides and floods in Brazil claimed 1,348 lives, Tropical Storm Washi killed 1,257 in the Philippines, floods and landslides cost 813 lives in Thailand and 604 people were killed in an earthquake in Turkey.
The quakes in Japan and New Zealand together made up about half of last year's total insured losses from natural catastrophes, exceeding the previous record of $101 billion set in 2005. Munich Re compares losses in original dollars, and not adjusted for inflation.
"Normally, it is the weather-related natural catastrophes that are the dominant loss drivers," Munich Re said.
In the United States, 171 events produced $35 billion in economic losses. Nearly $26 billion of that came from thunderstorm events, shattering the previous record by more than $10 billion.
Among those storms were tornado outbreaks in April and May that rank among the 10 largest U.S. weather disasters ever.
The Insurance Information Institute said that if taken as a whole, and adjusted for inflation, the 2011 spring tornado season was the fourth-costliest disaster in U.S. history, trailing only hurricanes Katrina and Andrew and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Despite the heavy payouts, many observers say that the claims were not big enough on their own to provide a broad boost to reinsurers' pricing strength relative to their insurance company clients, because reinsurers still have plenty of excess capital.
The seeming disconnect between the high financial cost and comparatively low human toll is because the two worst disasters occurred in places with "high insurance penetration," where a large percentage of people and property are covered by insurance, Munich Re's Ernst Rauch said.
"When it comes to the monetary impact of disasters, not only the events themselves matter," Rauch said. "What really matters is where they happen, in which environment in terms of insurance penetration and wealth."
There were 820 natural catastrophes in 2011, about average for the past 10 years but significantly higher than the 30-year average of 630 events per year.
"At least part of this increasing frequency in number of weather-related natural disasters is driven already by climate change," Rauch said. The natural patterns known as El Nino and La Nina also play a role, he said.
Munich Re's figures differ somewhat from those of rival Swiss Re published last month, which include man-made disasters in the calculation.
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