Article image

Scientists reveal the hidden death burden of tropical cyclones

A new study led by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health has found that hurricanes and other tropical cyclones in the United States were associated with up to 33.4 percent higher death rates from several major causes – including injuries, infectious and parasitic diseases, respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, or neuropsychiatric disorders – in the months after the natural disasters occurred. These findings highlight how far-reaching and varied the hidden costs to life could be from climate-related disasters and climate change.

“In the U.S., tropical cyclones, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, have a devastating effect on society, yet a comprehensive assessment of their continuing health impacts had been lacking,” said study senior author Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, an assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health.

“Our study is a first major step in better understanding how cyclones may affect deaths, which provides an essential foundation for improving resilience to climate-related disasters across the days, weeks, months, and years after they wreak destruction.” 

After collecting 33.6 million U.S. death records from 1988 to 2018, Professor Kioumourtzoglou and her colleagues used statistical methods to calculate how death rates changed after tropical cyclones when compared to equivalent periods in other years. For the month when the natural disaster occurred, the researchers found a 33.4 percent spike in injuries-related deaths, with female injury death rates higher than males’ (46.5 percent compared to 27.6 percent). 

In subsequent months, they noticed increases in death rates for injuries (3.7 percent), infectious and parasitic diseases (1.8 percent), respiratory diseases (1.3 percent), cardiovascular diseases (1.2 percent), and neuropsychiatric disorders (1.2 percent).

 “Our results show that tropical cyclones in the U.S. were associated with increases in deaths for several major causes of death, speaking to the ‘hidden burden’ of climate-related exposures and climate change,” said study lead author Robbie Parks, a postdoctoral researcher at the Mailman School of Public Health.

“An outsized proportion of low-income and historically-disadvantaged communities in the United States reside in tropical cyclone-affected areas; understanding the public health consequences of climate-related disasters such as hurricanes and other tropical cyclones is an essential component of environmental justice,” he concluded.

The study is published in the journal JAMA.  

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day