Did 2020 shatter records for most number of disasters in US? Weather calamities caused $95 billion in damages
Scientists have confirmed what Americans across the nation experienced first-hand: 2020 was a historic year of extremes. There were 22 separate weather and climate disasters across the US — defined as each causing at least $1 billion in damages — shattering the previous annual record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 262 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted.
Every US state has been impacted by at least one billion-dollar disaster since 1980. The 2020 events include a record 7 disasters linked to tropical cyclones, 13 to severe storms, 1 to drought, and 1 to wildfires.
2020 is the sixth consecutive year (2015-2020) in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the US. Over the last 41 years (1980-2020), the years with 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events include 1998, 2008, 2011-2012, and 2015-2020.
Even though $1 billion is an arbitrary threshold, these specific events account for the majority of the damage from all recorded US weather and climate events. “It is important to keep in mind that these estimates do not reflect the total cost of US weather and climate disasters, only those associated with events in excess of $1 billion in damages. However, these extreme events do account for the majority (greater than 80%) of the damage from all recorded US weather and climate events, and they are becoming an increasingly larger percentage of the total damage costs from weather-related events at all scales and loss levels,” write authors.
The analysis reveals that the 22 events cost the US a combined $95 billion in damages. The costliest 2020 events were Hurricane Laura ($19 billion), the Western wildfires ($16.5 billion), and the destructive August derecho ($11 billion).
Adding the 2020 events to the record that began in 1980, the US has sustained 285 weather and climate disasters where the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The cumulative cost for these 285 events exceeds $1.875 trillion.
“In particular, the historically large US losses from hurricanes and wildfires over the last four years (2017-2020) have further skewed the total distribution of extreme weather costs. From 1980-2000, about 75% of all disaster-related costs were due to billion-dollar disasters, and by 2010, the percentage had risen to about 80%. By 2020, it has risen again to about 85% of all disaster-related costs, or $1.875 trillion out of $2.215 trillion,” explain scientists.
Every region has been impacted
According to the experts, what is amply clear is that extreme weather and climate events affect all regions of the US. In total, from 1980-2020, the US South, Southeast, and Central regions experienced a higher frequency and diversity of billion-dollar disasters than other regions. The South has also suffered the highest cumulative damage costs, reflecting the diversity, frequency, and severity of weather and climate events impacting the region.
The research team warns that the number and cost of weather and climate disasters are increasing in the US due to a combination of increased exposure (that is, more assets at risk), vulnerability (implying how much damage a hazard of given intensity — wind speed, or flood depth, for example — causes at a location), and the fact that climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters.
To be more specific, the US experienced a record-breaking number of named tropical cyclones (30), eclipsing the record of 28 set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. Of these 30 storms, a record 12 made landfall in the US. “And 7 of the 12 became billion-dollar disasters—also a new record,” says the report.
A record-breaking US wildfire season burned more than 10.2 million acres. California more than doubled its previous annual record for area burned (last set in 2018) with over 4.1 million acres. “Each disaster type has a distinct footprint of impact over time. We see wildfire impacts largely west of the Plains states, with a few Southeast impacts. However, the most intense and destructive wildfires occur in California, most notably after the year 2000,” emphasizes NOAA.
Five of the top six largest wildfires on record in California (dating to 1932) burned during August and September. The August Complex was the largest California wildfire, which began as 37 separate wildfires within the Mendocino National Forest, set off after storms caused more than 10,000 lightning strikes across Northern California. Approximately 10,500 structures were damaged or destroyed across California. Oregon also had historic levels of wildfire damage, as over 2,000 structures burned. “These wildfires spread rapidly and destroyed several small towns in California, Oregon, and Washington. Colorado also had a severe wildfire season, as its three largest wildfires on record burned during 2020. Dense wildfire smoke also produced hazardous air quality that affected millions of people that also included major cities for weeks. Hundreds of additional wildfires also burned across other Western states,” say experts.
Severe local storm events are common in the Plains and into the Ohio River Valley states. Winter storm impacts are concentrated in the Northeast given the population density and more assets exposed to powerful Nor’easters bringing wind, snow, ice, and storm surge. “Tropical cyclones are the most costly disaster we assess, and they create impacts from Texas to New England, but also include many inland states as a result of extreme rainfall and inland flood damage,” note authors.
There is also a high frequency of inland flooding events that occur in states adjacent to large rivers or the Gulf of Mexico, which is a warm source of moisture to fuel rainstorms.
Widespread, continuous drought and record heat-affected more than a dozen Western and Central states for much of the summer, fall, and into the winter months. There were considerable crop and livestock impacts across the West and Central states from both the persistent heat and increasingly dry conditions. The combined drought and heat also assisted in drying out vegetation across the West that contributed to the Western wildfire potential and severity.
“Drought impacts are mostly focused in the Southern and Plains states, where there are billions of dollars in agriculture and livestock assets. While crop freeze events have become more sporadic since the early 1990s, they can still cause considerable damage in the states of California, Florida, and other southeastern states such as Georgia and South Carolina,” the findings state.