Natural Disasters Cost America A Record-Breaking $306 Billion In Damages In 2017

Hurricane Irma, pictured here on September 8 of last year. NOAA/GOES-16/NASA

At the same time, Munich Re, a global insurance group, noted that 2017 featured the highest insured losses ($135 billion) on record, particularly due to the tripartite of tropical cyclones. Overall losses ($330 billion) were the second-highest on record, topped only by 2011, which included the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

However you look at it, 2017 represented a new watermark for weather extremes.

Climate change isn’t explicitly referenced in the NOAA press release, but, as Prof. Michael Mann – the Director of the Earth System Science Center at The Pennsylvania State University – tells IFLScience: “There’s no doubt that climate change played a role in the unprecedented financial losses from extreme weather during 2017.”

“We witnessed much of the damage in real time,” Mann adds. “The impacts of climate change, as I point out these days, are no longer subtle.”

Working out if this trend will continue over time, however, is a little difficult.

Although the data is still coming in, a warmer world is expected to have an effect on various natural disasters, including hurricanes, droughts, wildfires and more. It’s not correct to say that climate change causes a particular extreme weather event, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is exacerbating and intensifying them – although there is still a fair bit of uncertainty as to how their frequency will change.

In any case, stronger hurricanes and larger wildfires may not result in more losses in the future. It largely depends on the unique characteristics of each event (the unusually slow-moving propagation of Harvey, for example), what communities they hit, and how resilient they are to weather extremes. If more is invested in defensive or mitigating measures in particularly vulnerable parts of the country, costs may go down even if the intensity of natural disasters increases.


We won’t hold our breath, though. The 2015 federal budget for science, energy and the environment combined totals $68.8 billion, which is 7 percent of the total, or 22 percent of 2017’s losses. Cuts to science loom constantly under the new administration.

The military budget, though, was nearly $600 billion – good for some threats, but useless against weather extremes and climate change.

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