Hurricane Katrina
© NASA
High-resolution satellite image of Hurricane Katrina on August 26, 2005 from the NASA Aqua satellite.
For the first time in its history, the World Meteorological Organization has released world records of the human toll from extreme weather events.

In a press release sent to weather.com Thursday, WMO says it is releasing world records for the highest reported historical death tolls from tropical cyclones, tornadoes, lightning and hailstorms. Previously, the official WMO Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes kept only temperature and weather records to address the impacts of specific events.

Randy Cerveny, Arizona State University professor of geographical science and urban planning, is the chief Rapporteur of Climate and Weather Extremes for WMO. In other words, Cerveny is the "keeper of the world's weather extremes."

"In today's world, it seems like the latest weather disaster is the worst," Cerveny said. "Knowing exactly how bad various types of weather have been in the past has been an integral part of preparing for the future."

Cerveny said you often hear that a storm like Hurricane Katrina, which barreled through the Bahamas before devastating the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, was the deadliest tropical cyclone/hurricane to have ever occurred.

"While Katrina was bad — more than 2,000 died — it pales in comparison to the tropical cyclone that hit the area of present-day Bangladesh in 1970, that killed an estimated 300,000 people," Cerveny said. "This type of extreme (mortality totals) provides a very useful set of baseline numbers against which future disasters can be compared."

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said this type of record-keeping is important because "extreme weather causes serious destruction and major loss of life."

"That is one of the reasons behind the WMO's efforts to improve early warnings of multiple hazards and impact-based forecasting, and to learn lessons gleaned from historical disasters to prevent future ones," Taalas said. "The human aspect inherent in extreme events should never be lost."

To determine the world records of human life lost to extreme weather events, Cerveny gathered a group of 19 experts to conduct an in-depth investigation of documented mortality records for the five selected weather-related events.

The new mortality world records for extreme weather events released by WMO Thursday are:
  • Highest mortality associated with a tropical cyclone is an estimated 300,000 people killed directly as result of the passage of a tropical cyclone through Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, on Nov. 12-13, 1970.
  • Highest mortality associated with a tornado is an estimated 1,300 people killed by an April 26, 1989, tornado that destroyed the Manikganj district of Bangladesh.
  • Highest mortality associated with indirect lightning is 469 people killed in a lightning-caused oil tank fire in Dronka, Egypt, on Nov. 2, 1994.
  • Highest mortality directly associated with a single lightning flash is 21 people killed by a single stroke of lightning in a hut in Manyika Tribal Trust Lands in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, on Dec. 23, 1975.
  • Highest mortality associated with a hailstorm is 246 people killed near Moradabad, India, on April 30, 1888. Hailstones were reportedly as large as "goose eggs and oranges and cricket balls."
Cerveny said WMO may add more mortality world records from other extreme weather events, including floods and heat waves, in the future.

"I think that many people are unaware of exactly how dangerous certain types of weather can be," Cerveny said. "The more that we are aware of the dangers, hopefully, the less likely we will see repeats of these types of disasters."