First, the good news: for 2012, the number of extreme weather events costing more than a billion dollars was eleven, down from 2011, when there were fourteen such disasters, according to figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) last week.
Now, the bad news: while the number of such disasters is down, the economic costs for 2012 are expected to exceed last year’s tab of $60 billion; this is mostly as a result of Superstorm Sandy, which may cost $100 billion, and this year’s extreme drought, which could be even more expensive. In addition to these two, the billion-dollar climate disasters include seven severe thunderstorm outbreaks, two hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.
And even more bad news: the tab for 2012 will most likely rank as the second most expensive year for extreme weather disasters since 1980. Top prize goes to 2005, the year when Katrina and three other hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast.
Worldwide, the estimated cost for this year’s natural disasters is at least $140 billion, according to a report by the Swiss Re insurance group, but it was the US that sustained the most expensive losses. In fact, the top five losses were all in the US. Also in 2012, more than 11,000 people died because of these extreme events.
By comparison, in 2011 total losses worldwide from natural disasters were around $350 billion, largely due to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Studies have indicated that global warming increases the likelihood of extreme heat waves, wildfires and extreme precipitation, but the Guardian adds a cautionary note:
Jake Crouch, a climatologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), said it is difficult to make direct connections between climate change and the economic losses from extreme events seen this year, or in other years.
“Climate change is having a role in these events but how much of a role is hard to tell at this time,” Crouch said. Many other factors, including socioeconomic trends such as a rising population that is exposing more people and infrastructure to extreme weather events, are helping to drive disaster loss trends.
Here’s a reminder of four of these billion-dollar events in the US, in chronological order:
The 2012 U.S. fire season was the 3rd worst in U.S. history, with 9.2 million acres burned. The Waldo Canyon fire that erupted in Colorado at the end of June is considered the most destructive wildfire in the history of the state, and overall more than 3.6 million acres burned in the US during August—the most on record for any August in recorded history. It wasn’t just Colorado that suffered: New Mexico had its largest fire in state history, while Oregon had its most widepread fire since the 1860s.
The total cost of this year’s Great Drought is not yet finalized, but experts believe this may turn out to be the costliest weather event of 2012. The area affected by the drought in the contiguous US peaked at 61.8 percent in July, making it the largest since the Dust Bowl drought of December 1939. Crop damages alone are estimated to be $35 billion.
Official U.S. Navy Imagery/flickr
3. Hurricane Isaac
Remember Isaac? That was the hurricane that made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River on August 28 as a Category 1 Hurricane with 80 mph winds, but thankfully New Orleans’ newly upgraded levee stood strong. However, as the hurricane moved on, it encountered levees that had not been upgraded, resulting in $2 billion in damage (and a delay to the start of the Republican Convention in Tampa).
4. Superstorm Sandy
No hurricane on record has been larger than this monster, which made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 29, with sustained winds of 80 mph. Its storm-force winds attacked 943 miles of the US coast, and brought torrential rain as well as snow and blizzard conditions in six states from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Over 130 people lost their lives, and the damage may well be over $100 billion.
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