Facts + Statistics: Global catastrophes

2020 natural catastrophes

Overall losses from world-wide natural catastrophes in 2020 totaled $210 billion dollars, significantly higher than $166 billion in 2019, according to Munich Re. There were 980 events that caused losses in 2020, compared with 860 events in 2019. Insured losses from the 2019 events totaled $82 billion, also significantly higher than $57 billion in 209.. Natural catastrophes in 2020 caused 8,200 deaths, compared with 9,435 in 2019.

Ranked by insured losses, the top five costliest natural catastrophes in 2020 were events that occurred in the United States, according to Munich Re. The costliest, Hurricane Laura in August, resulted in $10 billion in insured losses. The second most costly was the California wildfires that caused $7.5 billion in insured losses. Severe storms in early August, including a dangerous derecho (straight line winds) in Idaho and Illinois, ranked third with $5 billion in insured losses. Rounding out the top five catastrophes by insured losses were Hurricane Isaias in the United States and the Caribbean in July and August that caused  $4.1 billion in insured losses and Hurricane Sally in September in the United States causing $3.5 billion in insured losses. Due to these and other events the U.S. accounted for $67 in insured losses. The worst catastrophe ranked by the number of deaths was a flood in Pakistan from July to October that claimed 400 deaths.

Other notable events in 2020 were the year’s costliest natural disaster ranked by overall losses, the severe flooding in China during the summer monsoon rains. Overall losses from the floods amounted to about $17 billion, only about 2 percent of which was insured and extreme temperatures in the Arctic Circle where In parts of northern Siberia, there were extensive wildfires and temperatures of about 86°F.

World Natural Catastrophe Losses, 2020


Source: © 2021 Munich Re, NatCatSERVICE. As of January 2021.

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Top Five World Costliest Natural Catastrophes By Overall Losses, 2020


Source: © 2021 Munich Re, Geo Risks Research, NatCatSERVICE. As of January 2021.

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Top Five World Costliest Natural Catastrophes By Insured Losses, 2020


Source: © 2021 Munich Re, Geo Risks Research, NatCatSERVICE. As of January 2021.

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Top Five World Natural Catastrophes By Fatalities, 2020


Source: © 2021 Munich Re, Geo Risks Research, NatCatSERVICE. As of January 2021.

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Natural and Man-made Disasters


Swiss Re collects data on global insured losses resulting from both natural catastrophes and man-made disasters. Besides including man-made disasters, Swiss Re’s figures differ from Aon’s because Swiss Re uses different collection methods and criteria for classifying events. According to Swiss Re’s January 2021 sigma: Natural catastrophes in 2020 insured losses totaled $89 billion in 2020, the fifth-highest annual loss on sigma records, up from $63 billion in 2019 and above the previous 10-year average of $79 billion. Natural catastrophes caused $81 billion in insured losses, driven by the largest events, Hurricanes Laura and Sally and the derecho (straight-line winds) in the United States, and severe convective storms and wildfires in the United States and Australia. Many small and medium-sized secondary perils such as severe convective storms, which include tornadoes and thunderstorms, and wildfires accounted for more than 70 percent of natural catastrophe insured losses. Secondary perils are events that occur as a secondary effect of a primary event such as a tsunami following an earthquake. Man-made disasters caused $8 billion in insured losses. While the number of man-made disasters fell from 2019 to 2020 resulting from reduced economic activity from lockdowns imposed to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, insured losses remained at the same level as in 2019 due to the massive explosion at the port of Beirut and civil unrest in the United States that led to property damage in 24 states.

There were 274 catastrophe events in 2020, compared with 321 in 2019. Natural catastrophes accounted for 189 perils and 85 were man-made.

Nuclear incidents

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) rates the severity of nuclear incidents on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) from one (indicating an anomaly) to seven (indicating a major event). The scale considers an event’s impact based on three criteria: its effect on people and the environment; whether it caused unsafe levels of radiation in a facility; and if preventive measures did not function as intended. Scales six and seven designate full meltdowns, where the nuclear fuel reactor core overheats and melts. Partial meltdowns, in which the fuel is damaged, are rated four or five.

Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency assigned a rating of seven to the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The 1986 Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union is the only other incident to rate a seven. The Chernobyl incident killed 56 people directly and thousands of others indirectly through cancer and other diseases. The 2011 incident released high amounts of radiation and caused widespread evacuations in affected areas but only one death to date.

The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the worst nuclear accident in the United States, was designated a five. Insurers paid about $71 million in liability claims and litigation costs associated with the accident. In addition to the liability payments to the public under the Price-Anderson Act, $300 million was paid by a pool of insurers to the operator of the damaged nuclear power plant under its property insurance policy.

Selected Examples of Historic Nuclear Events, as Classified by the INES Scale (1)


Level INES description Example Location Year
1 Anomaly Fast stop of the main circulation pumps
and simultaneous loss of their fly wheel
systems during reactor scram
Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant,  Finland 2008
    Exposure of two workers in the nuclear power plant beyond the dose constraints Rajasthan Nuclear Power Plant, India 2012
2 Incident Reactor trip due to high pressure in the reactor pressure vessel Laguna Verde Nuclear
Power Plant, Mexico
    Overexposure of a practitioner in interventional radiology exceeding the annual limit Paris, France 2013
3 Serious incident Release of iodine 131 into the environment from the radioelements production facility Fleurus, Belgium 2008
    Severe overexposure of a radiographer Lima, Peru 2012
4 Accident with local consequences Radioactive material in scrap metal facility resulted in acute exposure of scrap dealer New Delhi, India 2010
    Overexposure of four workers at an irradiation facility Stamboliysky, Bulgaria 2011
5 Accident with wider consequences Severe damage to the reactor core Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, USA 1979
    Four people died after being overexposed from an abandoned and ruptured high activity source Goiania, Brazil  1987
6 Serious accident Significant release of radioactive material to the environment after the explosion of a high activity waste tank Kyshtym, Russian Federation 1957
7 Major accident Significant release of radioactive material to the environment resulting in widespread health and environmental effects  Chernobyl, Ukraine 1986
    Significant release of radioactive material to the environment resulting in widespread environmental effects Fukushima, Japan 2011

(1) International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency. INES Flyer.

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Top 15 World Property Damage Losses In The Hydrocarbon Industry (1)

(US $ millions)

Rank Date Plant type Event type Location Country Property loss (2)
1 Jul. 7, 1988 E&P offshore (3) Explosion, fire Piper Alpha, North Sea U.K. $1,960
2 Jan. 11, 2017 Refinery Fire Ruwais, Abu Dhabi U.A.E 1,000+
3 Oct. 23, 1989 Chemical Explosion, vapour cloud explosion Pasadena, Texas U.S. 1,520
4 Mar. 19, 1989 E&P offshore (3) Explosion, fire Baker, Gulf of Mexico U.S. 900
5 Mar. 15, 2001 E&P offshore (3) Explosion Rancador Field, Campos Basin Brazil 850
6 Sep. 25, 1998 Gas processing Explosion, vapour cloud explosion Sale, Longford, Victoria Australia 810
7 Apr. 24, 1988 E&P offshore (3) Blowout Enchova, Campos Basin Brazil 760
8 Sep. 21, 2001 Fertilizer Explosion Toulouse France 730
9 Jun. 25, 2000 Refinery Explosion, fire Mina Al-Ahmadi Kuwait 720
10 May 4, 1988 Chemical Explosion Henderson, Nevada U.S. 690
11 Jan. 19, 2004 Gas processing Explosion, fire Skikda Algeria 690
12 Apr. 1, 2015 E&P offshore (3) Fire Abkatun, Bay of Campeche Mexico 690
13 May 5, 1988 Refinery Explosion, vapour cloud explosion Norco, Louisiana U.S. 670
14 Mar. 11, 2011 Refinery Explosion, fire Sendai Japan 650
15 Apr. 21, 2010 E&P offshore (3) Explosion, fire Gulf of Mexico U.S. 640

(1) Property damage only.
(2) Inflated to December 2017 values.
(3) Exploration and production.

Source: The 100 Largest Losses, 1978-2017, March 2018, Marsh & McLennan Companies.

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Insurance Catastrophe Loss Review: Oil Spills: View PowerPoint Presentation slides.

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