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Posted at 10:55 AM ET, 12/29/2011

Top 5 extreme international weather events of 2011

An aerial view of a flooded field and monastery school in Bangkok. Flooding in Thailand was one of the top five international weather events of 2011. (Paula Bronstein, Getty Images)
Earlier this week, we looked at the top five extreme weather events to impact the U.S. this year. Not confined to any particular borders, Mother Nature also brought extreme conditions to other parts of the world in 2011, including deadly storms, flooding and prolonged drought. Globally, extreme weather events were responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, not to mention billions of dollars in damages.

Related link: NASA scientist warns “climate dice” loaded for more extreme weather

Let’s take a look at the top 5 extreme weather events to occur outside the U.S. in 2011:

1. Drought in East Africa

A pregnant Somali woman at a refugee camp outside Dadaab, Kenya. (Jerome Delay, Associated Press)
By far the deadliest natural disaster of the year, a severe and prolonged drought in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya triggered a food crisis in July 2011. It was said to be the worst drought to affect East Africa in more than six decades, killing at least 30,000 children under the age of five and causing widespread malnourishment. On July 20, the United Nations declared an official famine in southern Somalia due to the worsening humanitarian crisis there.

Fortunately, recent rains have helped alleviate drought conditions. Yet the situation remains precarious in Somalia, where at least 4 million people were still in need of food aid as of late October.

Consistent with studies on the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the East African drought was likely influenced by La Niña conditions in the Eastern Pacific that began in late 2010 and lasted through much of 2011. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters takes a more in-depth look at the role of Indian Ocean sea surface temperatures on shifting atmospheric circulations over East Africa. Summarizing scientific research, Masters suggests that a warmer Indian Ocean could bring more sinking air to East Africa, depriving the region of moisture and vital rains in the coming decades

2. Flooding in Thailand

Residents walk through a flooded street in Bangkok adorned with portraits of the Thai king and queen (Saeed Khan, AFP/Getty Images)
Among the major flood disasters of 2011, the inundation in Thailand undoubtedly stands out. It was the worst flooding to affect the country in over half a century and became Thailand’s most expensive natural disaster in history. Abundant rainfall that began last spring continued throughout the monsoon season, with some areas of the country receiving over 20 inches of rainfall in September alone. The floods have claimed 657 lives in Thailand and neighboring countries, and have caused $45 billion of damage, according to World Bank estimates

Like other extreme weather events this year, the Southeast Asian flooding has been linked to La Niña. Yet it also highlights the risk that rising sea levels pose for the world’s low-lying coastal populations. Jeff Masters provides an excellent summary of the economic impact that more frequent floods could bring the country later this century. On a similar note, CWG’s Andrew Freedman offers a sobering look at the disruption brought to the country’s technology and manufacturing sector.

See a comprehensive photo gallery, video, and aerial satellite images of the flooding

3. Tropical storm Washi in the Philippines

Remains of houses, toppled trucks and uprooted trees lie along a flood-ravaged area in the city of Cagayan de Oro in the southern Philippines. (Froilan Gallardo, Associated Press)
The most recent of this year’s notable weather events was Tropical Storm Washi, which struck the Philippines during the third week of December. Despite only reaching tropical storm status (maximum sustained winds were 65 mph), Washi became the world’s deadliest storm in 2011, according to Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters. The Associated Press reports that the death toll stands at 1,249 as of Dec. 26.

Washi’s catastrophic impact was largely due to heavy rains that caused mudslides and flash floods. Some areas received up to 8” of rain in only 24 hours, inundating low-lying areas on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. From a meteorological perspective, Washi produced somewhat unusual rainfall for the time of year. Jeff Masters notes that sea surface temperatures were about 1ºC above average off the coast of the Philippines, which likely added to the moisture content of the storm.

A common thread in some of the deadliest weather events is a lack of emergency preparedness. However significant the rainfall, Washi’s death toll would likely have been lower if locals had received adequate warning that the storm was coming (see photos of the storm’s destruction).

4. Year of the typhoon, earthquake and tsunami in Japan

Police officers in rain gear regulate vehicles moving across a flooded national route in Toyokawa on Wednesday Sept. 21, 2011 as powerful Typhoon Roke lashes central Japan with heavy rains and sustained winds of up to 100 mph (162 kph). (Associated Press)
In the context of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people back in March, Typhoon Roke added insult to injury for Japan. With sustained 100 mph winds equivalent to a category two hurricane, the tropical cyclone was fortunately downgraded to a tropical storm when it made landfall. Nonetheless, the storm brought strong winds and flooding rains to southern and central Japan, and caused 13 fatalities. On the island of Tokushima, an incredible 24 inches of rain fell in just 48 hours.

Satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Roke as it approaches Japan. (NASA)
Farther north, 8” fell around Fukushima, where the March earthquake damaged a nuclear power plant.

Although Typhoon Roke’s damage was minimal compared to the 2011 earthquake, the storm caused over 200,000 power outages and kept an already battered nation on edge. The earthquake/tsunami was not directly weather-related, but it is worth mentioning here due to its status as the worst natural disaster the year.

5. Flash floods in Brazil

While flooding in Queensland, Australia was a significant weather story in early 2011, a flash flood in Brazil will take the fifth spot for being such an intense, small-scale event. On Jan. 11-12, quick-hitting and torrential rains killed 903 people in flash floods and mudslides outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The high death toll made it the deadliest weather event in Brazil’s history. Nearly 12 inches of rain fell in under 24 hours, over twice the average rainfall for the entire month of January.

Video: Torrential rains in a two-day period caused treacherous flooding and killed hundreds of people outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Jeff Masters of Weather Underground reports that near record sea surface temperatures in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean might have played a role in drawing abundant moisture into the atmosphere. In January 2011, sea surface temperatures off the coast of Brazil were over 1ºC above average, the second highest on record

By  |  10:55 AM ET, 12/29/2011

Categories:  Climate Change, Droughts, Floods, International Weather, Latest, Recaps, Tropical Weather

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