John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Climate change, population growth, and infrastructure are all contributing to the rise in billion-dollar disasters in the U.S., according to NOAA.
The brutal, globe-spanning heat that made 2016 the second-warmest year in more than a century of records wasn’t the only recent atmospheric plague on Earth. Last year also witnessed a huge number of costly weather and climate disasters in the U.S., including ferocious wildfires, devastating floods, and a slew of severe, house-splintering storms.
There were 15 disasters in 2016 that caused more than $1 billion in damages, making it the second-hardest-hit year in modern history for these kind of meteorological monsters (right behind the 2011 total of 16 such events). All told these calamities reaped 138 lives and piled up $46 billion in direct costs, according to a NOAA analysis.
Some disasters were widely reported on, such as October’s Hurricane Matthew that’s somehow still causing headaches in Florida and South Carolina. Others might’ve avoided many people’s radars, including floods in West Virginia and around the Gulf and major hailstorms that struck San Antonio and other Texas locales in the spring.
The four inland floods that delivered more than $15 billion in damages (much in Louisiana and Texas) were especially notable, as no year has seen more than two billion-dollar-plus floods since at least 1980. This flood surge could be a sign of things to come as the atmosphere heats up: warm air holds more moisture, and during storms can deliver city-inundating rain bombs.
And a pattern is emerging. In the whole period from 1980 to 2016, there were an average of 5.5 weather events each year that did more than $1 billion of damage (adjusted for inflation), according to NOAA. But in the most recent five years, there were an average of 10.6 events per year. 2005 was the costliest year since 1980, thanks to hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and others. 2012 was the second costliest, due to extreme drought and Hurricane Sandy.
“The increase in population and material wealth over the last several decades are an important factor for the increased damage potential,” according to NOAA:
These trends are further complicated by the fact that many population centers and infrastructure exist in vulnerable areas like coasts and river floodplains, while building codes are often insufficient in reducing damage from extreme events. Climate change is probably also paying a role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters.
These disasters are now lumped into the 203 events costing more than $1 billion that’ve hammered the U.S. since 1980, which together have cost more than $1.1 trillion. Here’s a highlight reel of 2016 for all to remember, beginning with flooding in Rainelle, West Virginia, about 50 miles southeast of Charleston:
Coastal erosion after Hurricane Matthew in Vilano Beach, Florida:
Automotive damage after a punishing spring hailstorm in San Antonio:
And aerial photos just east of Baton Rouge after (left) and before (right) August’s floods: