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Tuesday, December 22, 1998 Published at 17:02 GMT

Nature's turbulent year

A satellite view of Hurricane Mitch shows the massive size of the storm

The last year seems to have had more than its fair share of natural disasters.

Review of the Year
These tragedies have been matched, moreover, by a growing consensus that while the disasters are 'natural' in the sense of being forces of nature, events such as hurricanes and floods are being made more frequent and more severe by Man's impact on the world.

The worst such disaster of 1998 was Hurricane Mitch, which carved a path of destruction across central America in October. More than 18,000 people were reported to have died as the torrential rain caused mudslides which swept away whole villages.

The dramatic images of destruction helped stimulate what was initially a lethargic relief effort.

Mitch had other consequences, not all of them necessarily bad. The scale of the devastation led to moves to cancel the international debt of Nicaragua and Honduras, the worst affected countries whose main industries had been virtually destroyed.

In the path of Hurricane Mitch
BBC Here And Now special (26')

Turning a problem into a disaster

There was also the realisation that deforestation had been an important factor in turning a problem into a disaster. This cause was also at work in at least two other instances of flooding during the year.

[ image: Chinese soldiers labour to turn back floodwaters]
Chinese soldiers labour to turn back floodwaters
Italy saw hundreds killed when torrential rain caused mudslides in May. As with Mitch, one of the main factors was deforestation weakening the soil's resistance to the sudden downpour.

China was hit by floods in August, particularly along the Yangtse River. The flood levels were described as the country's "worst ever".

Again, officials eventually admitted that one of the main contributing factors was environmental damage in the form of deforestation leading to soil erosion and a consequent rise in river levels.

Hurricane season

Mitch was not the only hurricane to cause devastation in 1998. Hurricane Georges caused serious damage in the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean, as well as in the US.

Hurricane Georges makes landfall
The BBC's Damian Grammaticas reports

[ image: Hurricane Bonnie was only one of 35 tropical storms to develop in August]
Hurricane Bonnie was only one of 35 tropical storms to develop in August
Autumn is the hurricane season and 1998 was no exception, marked by a series of lethal hurricanes and typhoons.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that in 35 days over August and September some 35 tropical storms formed - a whole year's worth of activity in little over a month.

Hurricane Earl was another to hit the north American coast. Bonnie was notable not for any destruction but for the amount of data it yielded to scientific analysis. Typhoon Zeb killed nearly 100 people across the Pacific and Typhoon Babs extracted a similar toll in the same region.

Earlier in the year, a cyclone killed 3,000 people in western India.

UK not immune

One damaging factor associated with the storms was the accompanying rainfall and consequent flooding. This happened even in countries with normally temperate climates such as the UK.

In January, Britain was hit by gales followed by heavy rain and flooding in some areas, though ironically the 'wrong kind' of rain to replenish reservoirs nearly emptied by years of water scarcity.

January was also marked by a freak tornado in the Sussex town of Selsey, which caused damage estimated at 10m.

[ image: Spring floods forced Shrewsbury residents to walk the plank]
Spring floods forced Shrewsbury residents to walk the plank
There was further
flooding and snow in March and the waters returned with a vengeance to central and eastern England over Easter the following month when several people died.

The damage, estimated to have cost 1.5bn, was of such a scale that the government was forced to promise help for the stricken regions.

British floods a sign of more to come
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore reports on floods and global warming

The performance of the Environment Agency, the UK body responsible for flood warnings, was criticised by MPs. When heavy rain again swept in during October, the defence system worked much better, though there was again loss of life.

Earthquakes and tidal waves

Other countries also experienced severe weather in 1998.

There were floods in Mexico in September which killed 400, Kenya and in India and Bangladesh where the death tolls ran into the thousands.

Canada opened the year in the grip of the worst ice storm on record, memorably described by one of those caught in its grip as "a test for Armageddon". By late January, nearly 750,000 people were still without power.

[ image: Afghan villagers survey the damage after a strong earthquake]
Afghan villagers survey the damage after a strong earthquake
Earthquakes shattered the land in Afghanistan more than once during the year. In February,
more than 4,000 people were killed and another quake in late May led to a similar toll.

There were other serious earthquakes in Bolivia and Turkey but much more devastating was the tidal wave which hit Papua New Guinea after an undersea quake in July. More than 1,500 people died and the survivors gave harrowing accounts of the great wave. They later had to contend with the threat of disease as the bodies rotted in the surrounding countryside.

Forest fires - Man and Nature

[ image: Fires in Borneo reduced forests to ashes]
Fires in Borneo reduced forests to ashes
While earthquakes are beyond the control of human beings, there were other disasters in 1998 which were - like Hurricane Mitch - the result of human activity interacting with natural phenomena.

The smog and haze caused by jungle fires which had affected much of south east Asia in 1997 continued with Borneo still ablaze in the spring. Despite strenuous efforts to put out the fires, they continued to smoulder until May, when the rains finally came.

The fires were caused mainly by unusually dry weather plus people burning the forests in order to plant crops or clear the land for timber or urban development. This same combination led to even bigger blazes in the Amazon.

Again, they were only halted when the rains fell in March. Ominously, the fires began again six months later.

In Florida the fires were believed to have been started deliberately and took swift hold in dried-out woodland.

Temperatures rising

But how much of all the above is really down to Man and how much is unavoidable - acts of God or of Nature?

[ image: El Nino has led to erratic and extreme weather conditions]
El Nino has led to erratic and extreme weather conditions
Some reports, for example, attribute global warming both to the impact of human beings and solar activity. The El Nino phenomenon has been known to exist for a long time and now its 'little sister', La Nina has been recognised as a similar force of nature. Yet both these events have been more severe this year than before and the most likely cause appears to be Man.

Perhaps this is not surprising with the world's temperature on the rise - July 1998 was the hottest month around the world on record. El Nino, for example, has been linked to global warming.

Global warming is taking place and its impact will be diverse. The Alaskan climate is altering the local landscape, , there are fears that European ski resorts will lose their snow, the UK Government forecasts a hotter, stormier 21st century and sea-levels are rising.

Buenos Aires 'agreement'

[ image: In Buenos Aires, the U.S. was still seen as an opponent of emissions controls]
In Buenos Aires, the U.S. was still seen as an opponent of emissions controls
The world's nations
gathered in Buenos Aires in November to discuss these issues. They did so against the background of grim predictions of climate change in the next century, including the possibility that the world's forests could themselves become producers rather than consumers of carbon dioxide.

The prospects for a climate agreement in Buenos Aires
The BBC's Fergus Nicholl reports

One of the main items on the agenda was reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. This did not have to be a country's own emissions - one proposal was for a nation's "quota" of permitted CO2 emissions to be traded if it did not use it all.

Buying the right to pollute
The BBC's Tim Hirsch reports on carbon trading

The United States was the main obstacle to reaching agreement, but in the end a deal was done setting out a timetable for the 5% cut agreed in Kyoto in 1997. There was a certain amount of 'fudge' about the negotiations, however, and while the US did sign up, the decision has still to be ratified by the US Congress.

Even if this is done, it seems hard to see how the US can meet its agreed target of a 5% cut by the year 2010. Less than two weeks after the summit ended, the official forecast from the US Energy Information Administration was that American emissions of carbon dioxide by the year 2010 would not have fallen - but in fact have risen by 33%.

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In this section

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Nature's turbulent year

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