2010 Was A Disaster, Or Was It?

Posted: 5th January 2011
2010 Was A Disaster, Or Was It?

Many recent news reports (e.g. this one) have focused on 2010 as a year with an unusual number of natural disasters, and of course, there have been many discussions whether this is related to climate change.

Using data from our news analytics API, we’ve looked at news regarding natural disasters, and if we compare the relative reporting on different natural disaster types between 2009 and 2010, the big difference is actually in the larger volcanic activity in 2010. There is a large increase in flooding as well, but looking at all “weather related disasters” that increase is balanced by less storm, wildfire, and typhoon news.
Looking at more detailed data, we do indeed find many natural disasters during the year, and below are the 25 with the most media coverage according to our analysis.

(NEWS PPM = 1,000,000*number of event instances for a canonic event for the year / total number of event instances for the year):

flood Pakistan 823
earthquake Haiti 708
volcanic eruption Iceland 510
earthquake Chile 305
flood China 288
wildfire Russia 282
earthquake China 256
volcanic eruption Indonesia 232
ice storm* Israel 230
drought Russia 180
tsunami Indonesia 119
landslide China 97
typhoon Philippines 83
flood Nashville 77
flood United States 77
earthquake China 74
typhoon China 74
volcanic eruption Iceland 70
flood Sri Lanka 65
flood Croatia 62
earthquake Indonesia 60
wildfire Israel 59
storm Melbourne 59
wildfire Moscow 57
flood Thailand 57

NOTE: the “ice storm — Israel” disaster looks surprising and is of course false – this is the news of an Israeli “settlement freeze” being reported!

For comparison, here is the top list for 2009. We immediately see that the top three natural disasters of 2010 have  much more relative media coverage than the top ones of 2009:

earthquake Indonesia 253
typhoon Taiwan 238
earthquake Italy 209
ice storm Israel 189
earthquake China 175
drought China 120
flood China 118
wildfire California 112
monsoon India 110
wildfire Greece 101
earthquake Sichuan 85
wildfire Australia 78
cyclone North Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific 72
typhoon Philippines 66
storm United States 65
hurricane United States 58
typhoon China 55
flood Philippines 54
storm Philippines 51
earthquake Taiwan 46
flood Manila 46
flood Turkey 45
ice storm United States 44
drought India 43
ice storm* West Bank 43

NOTE: the West Bank ice storm is again an incorrect interpretation of a settlement freeze

It is somewhat hard to confirm in our data that there were more natural disasters in 2010 than in 2009 – mostly because media tends to fill its “disaster quota” with smaller disasters if there are no big ones (see below).

A closer look at Haiti 2010

In terms of lost lives, the Haiti earthquake was by far the largest natural disaster of 2010. How was it reported? The following chart shows the number of events related to Haiti per publishing day for 2010:

We note that the peak of Natural Disaster events is, of course, right after it occurred; however, there is an increase in news towards the end of the year. Digging deeper, we can look at event time instead of publishing time:

We still see an increase at the end of 2010, but much less than for the publishing time. This indicates that the news at the end of the year is mostly referring back to the January event, probably in anticipation of the “anniversary” in January 2011.

Focusing on the month following the earthquake we find some interesting details:

The two to three weeks following the earthquake show a sharp increase in Person Travel events and Person Communication events, as everyone from politicians to Hollywood celebrities wanted to show their concern by traveling to and having meetings to talk about Haiti. After that, activity goes down significantly – the world media attention has moved on to something else!


Starting at the end of July, Pakistan suffered from heavy flooding (see Wikipedia for details). A similar chart for Pakistan does not reveal the same clear pattern of events following the disaster as Pakistan is simply too much in the news in general; however, the flooding is the significant event of the year for Pakistan. The nature of a drawn out event like rain caused flooding is also different from a single-point event like an earthquake as is clearly shown in the graph.

Media response to natural disasters

Looking back again at 2010, we’ve had a number of natural disasters that top the media flow, as illustrated by the peaks in the graph below that shows the number of Natural Disaster instances divided by the total number of event instances, per publishing day. However, since there are always small natural disasters occurring, and disasters are something media like to write about (!!!), there is also a fairly constant background noise1 natural disaster news – typically 2% of the events we extract on any given day are related to natural disasters, with peaks going up to about 15% for extreme events.

Want to learn more about how you can access Recorded Future data? Contact us, or get a limited look with Futures (free).

1 Maybe this noise is related to the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about how “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”