Spectacularly costly disasters are our new normal.
Major hurricanes are devastating coastal communities and bringing flooding thousands of miles inland. Wildfires are burning for months. Heatwaves are scorching places where people don’t have air conditioning. Events like these have all happened just this year, and they contributed to another huge annual bill of billion-dollar disasters tracked by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The cleanup and recovery from these events can take weeks, months, even years. According to our recent analysis at Climate Central, that recovery time between events is shrinking: The United States is now averaging a billion-dollar disaster every 20 days.
NOAA began tracking billion-dollar disasters in 1980. During the 1980s, the U.S. experienced, on average, three disasters per year, giving agencies an average of 66 days between disasters. In 2020, we had 22 disasters, leaving only 14 days for recovery between events.
NOAA just announced that in the first nine months of this year we have already surpassed the total disaster costs for all of last year. And we are on pace to set a new record for total number of disasters, with 18 on record through the end of September. That means once again the country has had little time to recover between events: an average of 15 days so far in 2021.
The physical resources and human effort needed to restore a sense of normalcy to places affected by disasters is limited, and they are tested with every new event. Because of the size of these events, they require assistance from local, state and federal governments. With a limited amount of funds and responders, the increased number and size of events are straining an already-stressed system. For example, CAL FIRE has reported at least 5,000 personnel–and as many as 15,000 — on the ground daily since mid-summer.
There is no doubt that climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent and more severe. For example, hurricanes are the mostly costly disasters in the NOAA database. As a result of climate change the oceans are warmer, fueling bigger, wetter storms. Heatwaves and floods, too, rank among the deadliest and costliest disasters. As a result of climate change heat waves are hotter and more likely. As a result of climate change there is increased water in the atmosphere causing heavier rainfall. No region of the United States is immune from the impacts.
The fact is that warming and impacts from warming will continue to get worse as long as CO2 emissions climb. This means that we expect the number of severe events to increase for the next several decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report emphasized the risk of compound disasters — essentially, disasters coming in rapid succession. Reducing carbon emissions and limiting warming, ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius, is the path to reducing the risks. Next month representatives from around the world will meet for the UN climate change conference COP26 in Glasgow to discuss how to achieve that. What they decide will influence the future in every American community. But if efforts to limit the rise of global temperatures succeed, future generations of Americans may not have to experience the pain or the costs of these disasters on a weekly, or worse, daily basis.
Jen Brady is lead data analyst at Climate Central, identifying significant trends, patterns and notable climate events. Brady previously worked at the U.S. EPA evaluating the climate change impacts of waste and contaminated land management.