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Photos: Natural disasters of 2011

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  1. For natural disasters, 2011 started with much of Queensland, Australia, swamped by rain-triggered flooding. Parts of Brisbane are seen here on Jan. 13. Munich Re, a multinational that insures insurance companies, calculated that the Australia flooding left $7.3 billion in economic losses, making it the fourth costliest natural disaster in the first half of 2011. The global bill was $265 billion, Munich Re said, well above the previous record of $220 billion in 2005. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Munich Re produced this map showing where 355 natural disasters hit in the first half of 2011. The larger the dot the more significant the disaster. (Munich RE) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Brazil also saw a natural disaster early in 2011 -- rain-triggered landslides that killed nearly 800 and left 14,000 homeless. Here rescue workers search for victims in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janeiro, on Jan. 12. (Stringer/brazil / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Australia saw a double whammy within a month -- flooding followed by 180-mph Cyclone Yasi. This damage was in the coastal town of Cardwell on Feb. 3. Amazingly, no deaths were reported from Australia's biggest cyclone in a century. (Paul Crock / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. New Zealand saw the second costliest natural disaster in the first half of 2011, a Feb. 21 earthquake that Munich Re estimates left $20 billion in economic losses. The death toll reached 181. This damage was seen in Avonside on Feb. 25. (Martin Hunter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A tsunami wave hits homes in Natori, Japan, on March 11. The largest earthquake in Japan's history triggered the tsunami, which slammed the eastern coast. The two events killed at least 15,500 people and left behind $210 billion in property damange, Munich Re estimates, making it the largest disaster so far this year. (Kyodo via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Property damage from Japan's disaster was mostly homes and businesses, but included infrastructure like ships, railway lines and other transportation. (Kyodo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The U.S. saw its deadliest outbreak of twisters in 50 years hit the Southeast in late April. The death toll reached 280 people and damage spread across five states, including this area in Georgia's Bartow County. Munich Re estimates $7.5 billion in property losses. (Bob Andres / Atlanta Journal & Constitution via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Flooding in the U.S. South and Southeast have so far this year left $2.1 billion in damage, Munich Re says, and that figure will rise since many areas are still under water. This area of St. Francisville, La., was swamped by Mississippi River floodwaters on May 20. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. April's tornado outbreak was followed by a single twister that flattened parts of Joplin, Mo., on May 24, killing 159 people. Tornadoes and other severe weather in the U.S. left $23.5 billion in property damage in the first half of 2011, Munich Re said. (Charlie Riedel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Wildfires across the Southwest and South were among the U.S. natural disasters in the first half of 2011. A firefighter on June 30 walks through an area burned by the Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos, N.M. In Texas, more than 3 million acres burned, destroying some 200 homes and businesses and causing $50 million in insured losses. (Jae C. Hong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (11) 2011: A record for natural disasters
  2. Image:
    Butch Dill / AP
    Slideshow (89) Severe storms rip across U.S. - Tornadoes
  3. Image: Rising Rivers And Tributaries Continue To Flood Southern Communities
    Mario Tama / Getty Images
    Slideshow (90) Severe storms rip across U.S. - Record flooding
  4. Image:
    AP
    Slideshow (27) Before-and-after: Tsunami clean-up
  5. Image: Grant Smith Christchruch Earthquake
    Mark Mitchell / New Zealand Herald via AP
    Slideshow (66) 6.3 quake rocks New Zealand
  6. Image: Floodwater Inundates Victorian Towns
    Lisa Maree Williams / Getty Images
    Slideshow (37) Australia's flood disaster continues
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 7/12/2011 5:13:03 PM ET 2011-07-12T21:13:03

Natural disasters across the globe have made 2011 the costliest on record in terms of property damage, and that's just six months in, according to a report released Tuesday by a leading insurer that tracks disasters.

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Moreover, that record builds on a trend of recent costly years — which means more expensive insurance for consumers over the long haul.

The first six months saw $265 billion in economic losses, well above the previous record of $220 billion (adjusted for inflation) set for all of 2005 (the year Hurricane Katrina struck), according to Munich Re, a multinational that insures insurance companies.

Japan's earthquake and tsunami last March account for the biggest chunk ($210 billion), as well as most deaths (15,500 dead with 7,300 still counted as missing), but even without that cost factored in, overall losses still exceed the 10-year average, the company stated in its half-year review (PDF file).

After Japan, the costliest disasters so far this year were New Zealand's earthquake in February ($20 billion), the twister outbreak in the U.S. Southeast ($7.5 billion), and Australia's flooding in December-January ($7.3 billion).

2011 is "one for the record books," Bob Hartwig, head of the Insurance Information Institute, told reporters being briefed on the study. "We are rewriting the financial and economic history of disasters on a global scale."

For the United States, 98 events (storms, flooding, fires and earthquakes) left $27 billion in economic losses, more than double the 10-year average of $11.8 billion, Munich Re stated.

The total number of events is trending up as well: The first half of 2011 has already produced more events than most entire years before 2006, the company found.

The vast majority of U.S. damage, $23.5 billion, was from twisters and other severe storms. Twisters have also claimed nearly 600 lives this year.

2011 will go down as "the year of the tornado," predicted Carl Hedde, a risk analyst at Munich Re.

The climate connection
Munich Re wasn't shy about drawing a connection between climate change and what it sees as longer windows for extreme weather.

While the trend for earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions is fairly stable, severe weather events are on the upswing, said Peter Hoppe, who runs the company's Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Center.

There is "higher potential of thunderstorm development in the last decade" and "more dates per year during which storms can develop," he added.

Munich Re has factored in increased population, and thus more property, to see if those are behind the rise in economic losses.

But the data show those alone "cannot explain" the increase, "so there is a significant trend in these losses," he said.

Natural events like La Nina and El Nino, ocean cycles that alter weather systems, are certainly factors as well, but warming temperatures appear to be adding a layer "on top" of that natural variability, Hoppe said.

He also cited a climate connection between Australia's severe floods and rising ocean temperatures off the coast there. That means "more evaporation and higher potential for these extreme downpours," he said.

"It can only be explained by global warming," he added.

Raising rates
The enormous losses translate into more payouts by insurers, which reduces their bottom lines.

"It's definitely the worst half year for the insurance industry" on record, said Hoppe.

So what does the trend mean for consumers? Higher insurance rates.

While "rates do not bounce up and down based on events in a single year," the previous three years were also costly in the United States, Hartwig said.

Story: Disasters lead to search for 'Safest City, USA'

"So we're in the midst of a longer term trend," he added, citing the fact that three of the 15 most expensive events globally happened in last 18 months: Japan's quake/tsunami, and earthquakes in New Zealand and Chile. If you add the U.S. tornadoes this spring as a single event, he noted, that'd make it in the top 15 as well.

In the United States, the increase in events is "pushing up the cost of providing insurance in many parts," Hartwig said.

"Insurers have begun to reflect that in their rates and will continue to do so."

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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