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Joe Romm, ThinkProgress ClimateProgress: A New Record: 14 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in 2011

A New Record: 14 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in 2011
by Joe Romm, November 8, 2011

In September 2010, Munich Re one of the world’s leading reinsurers, wrote “the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.

In January, they summed up 2010 this way:  “The high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change.”

Last week meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters analyzed 2011, “Fourteen U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011: a new record,” which I excerpt after the fold below:

It’s time to add another billion-dollar weather disaster to the growing 2011 total of these costly disasters: the extraordinary early-season Northeast U.S. snowstorm of October 29, which dumped up to 32 inches of snow, brought winds gusts of 70 mph to the coast, and killed at least 22 people….  The damage estimate in Connecticut alone is $3 billion, far more than the damage Hurricane Irene did to the state. Hundreds of thousands still remain without power a week after the storm, with full electricity not expected to be restored until Monday.

The October 29 snow storm brings the 2011 tally of U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters to fourteen, thoroughly smashing the previous record of nine such disasters, set in 2008. Between 1980 – 2010, the U.S. averaged 3.5 of these weather disasters per year. Through August, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) estimated that ten weather disasters costing at least $1 billion had hit the U.S., at total cost of up to $45 billion. However, the October 29 snow storm brings us up to eleven billion-dollar disasters, and a new disaster analysis done by global reinsurance company AON Benfield adds three more.

Flood damage from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee in the Northeast on September 8 is now estimated at more than $1 billion, and two outbreaks of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes–one in April and one in June–now have damage estimates exceeding $1 billion. A remarkable seven severe thunderstorm/tornado outbreaks did more than $1 billion each in damage in 2011, and an eighth outbreak July 10 – 14 came close, with damages of $900 million. In total, the fourteen billion-dollar disasters killed 675 people. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods in these fourteen disasters killed over 600 people, putting 2011 into fourth place since 1940 for most deaths by severe storms. Only 2005, with over 1,000 deaths caused by Katrina, 1969, with over 700 hurricane and flood-related deaths, and 1972, with 676 hurricane and flood-related deaths, were deadlier years for storms, according to NOAA. The fourteen billion-dollar weather disasters of 2011 caused $53 billion in damage, putting 2011 in fifth place for most damages from billion-dollar weather disasters. The top damage years, according to NCDC in adjusted 2011 dollars, were 2005 (the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma), 2008 (Hurricane Ike), 1988 (Midwest drought), and 1980 (Midwest drought). With nearly two months remaining in 2011, the potential exists for more billion-dollar weather disasters this year….

Here are AON Benfield’s estimates of the damages and NCDC’s estimates of the death tolls from 2011′s fourteen billion-dollar weather disasters (a clickable version of this table with information on each disaster is available on our severe weather resource page):

No, not all of those events can be attributable to climate change, but climate change almost certainly made most of them worse (see “Tornadoes, extreme weather, and climate change“).  As climatologist Kevin Trenberth always reminds us:

One of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.

And lumping the Texas drought and wildfires as one single disaster suggests, if nothing else, the scale of the extreme weather catastrophes to come (see “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security“).

H/t Tamino for the top chart.

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