The damage inflicted by natural disasters has been rising, and many analysts consider 2010 to be one of the worst years ever. The year saw devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, a volcanic eruption in Iceland that paralyzed air traffic throughout Europe, a crippling summer heat wave in Russia, and major floods in Pakistan. The United States was not immune, with record snowfall in much of the Northeast, mudslides in Southern California, and tornadoes that even struck on New Year's Eve. According to the German insurance company Munich Re, there were 950 natural disasters worldwide in 2010—the second highest number of such events since 1980. These catastrophes led to an estimated 295,000 deaths.

Many scientists have linked the increasing number and severity of many such disasters to climate change. For example, these scholars have considered climate change to be partly behind long-term increases in oceanic temperatures, which in turn have been cited as one factor in the high activity of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season. This past year, there were 19 named tropical storms in the North Atlantic, a tie for the third highest total ever.

Whether a natural hazard such as a storm or a heat wave becomes a natural disaster depends not only on the intensity of the event, but also on the degree of physical and human devastation. When viewing disasters in relation to populations, analysts look at several factors, particularly the types of areas hit and the demographic groups affected. Examining catastrophic events also can help policymakers in their efforts to prepare for and minimize the impact of such disasters. Findings from research on human populations and natural disasters can inform decisions about building codes, the refinement of evacuation procedures, and what financial and emotional assistance to provide survivors.  (Acknowledgments)