How we perceive the world is often dictated by how much, and what type, of media we consume. Sometimes it can feel like the world has never been more dangerous, whereas in reality, it’s less violent and safer than it ever has been. The same applies to things like extreme weather events and natural disasters – but in this case, the trend is precisely the opposite.
According to a news release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), last year, there were 16 weather and climate disasters that generated financial losses in excess of $1 billion. The average between 1980 and 2017 was 5.8 events, but this has crept up to 11.6 events in the last five years.
This ties with 2011 in terms of the record number of billion-dollar natural disasters, and – NOAA argues – perhaps even exceeds it, depending on how a natural disaster is counted.
Forget the frequency, though: the magnitude of these droughts, floods, deep freezes, storms, tropical cyclones, and wildfires is where the attention should be focused. Lest we forget the speed in which hurricanes like Maria and Irma intensified, and the record-breaking rainfall Harvey dumped on Texas – the latter of which is almost certainly linked to a certain anthropogenic phenomenon.
NOAA explains that the cumulative costs of all natural disasters in 2017 – including these three hurricanes – was $306.2 billion. Around 87 percent of these damages came from the terrible trilogy of hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey.
This shatters the previous record holder, 2005, where the quartet of Hurricanes Wilma, Rita, Katrina, and Dennis pushed damages to a total of $214.8 billion.
NOAA has tabulated the costs for each individual phenomenon, and it’s clear that the hurricanes were the true antagonists of last year. The California wildfires, for example, cost $18 billion. In contrast, Hurricane Harvey cost $125 billion – the clear “winner” of 2017’s disasters.
Rather remarkably, the wildfires themselves were the worst in history. “The combined destruction of the Tubbs, Atlas, Nuns, and Redwood Valley wildfires represent the most costly wildfire event on record,” according to the analysis by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).
As a bonus, 2017 was the third warmest year on record for the US, after 2012 and 2016.
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.