Natural disasters, also referred to as natural hazards, are extreme, sudden events caused by environmental factors such as storms, floods, droughts, fires and heatwaves. Natural disasters are now occurring with increasing severity, scope and impact. When we explore natural disasters in the context of planetary health, we are utilizing a systems-thinking approach to grasp the complexities and anthropogenic drivers relating a given disaster to causes and effects.
Globally, twice as many people were affected by natural disasters in the 1990s vs. in the 1980s, and global annual economic losses from extreme events increased 10-fold over the past four decades. Heat waves, droughts, fires, floods, tropical storms, and other natural disasters pose long-term health consequences. For example, particulate matter from fires reduces air quality and causes morbidity and mortality from cardiorespiratory disease; flooding can cause biological contamination of water supplies, displacement and trauma; more intense coastal storms, combined with sea level rise and loss of coastal barrier systems (mangrove forests, vegetated dunes, coral reefs, and wetlands), generate a “triple threat” for inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas. Survivors of natural disasters face serious, yet poorly understood, physical and mental health impacts. It must be a priority to investigate trends in exposure to natural hazards, which populations are most vulnerable, and effective practices for reducing vulnerability.