This year is on pace to be one of the most active and costliest years for disasters in the United States.
These 18 events put 2021 in second place for the most billion-dollar disasters behind 2020, when there were 22 such events. Last year shattered the previous annual record of 16 events, which occurred in 2017 and 2011.
While 2021′s 18 events trail 2020′s count, 2021′s disasters have been more costly. They are estimated to have resulted in $104.8 billion in damages, surpassing last year’s estimated $100.4 billion.
Moreover, to date, 2021 is ahead of 2020′s pace through September.
In recent years, these events have come in increasingly close succession, leaving the nation with little time to recover. An analysis by independent climate research group Climate Central shows the average time between billion-dollar disasters has dropped from 82 days in the 1980s to just 18 days on average in the past five years (2016-2020).
The 18 billion-dollar disasters so far this year have included an array of events, including ongoing drought and wildfires across the West, the severe cold snap in Texas and parts of the South in February, and four landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes.
Hurricane Ida, which ravaged Southeast Louisiana and parts of the Northeast, has proved to be the year’s most expensive event by far, with damages initially estimated at $64.5 billion. That makes Ida the fifth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, trailing only Katrina (2005), Harvey (2017), Maria (2017) and Sandy (2012).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that rising planetary temperatures are already affecting weather and climate extremes. Climate change is tied to larger, more extreme fires; more intense heat waves and droughts; hurricanes that strengthen more rapidly; and heavier downpours — all of which contribute to disaster damage.
Population growth and infrastructure expansion also increase disaster costs by putting more assets in harm’s way. Many people are moving into and building in disaster-prone areas.
NOAA’s Adam Smith, who manages the agency’s efforts to analyze these disasters, wrote last year that climate change and the increase in population and material wealth are jointly contributing to their rising costs.
NOAA adjusts damage estimates for inflation over time using the consumer price index.
Disaster fatigue: Beyond the price tag
The costs of disasters go beyond lost assets, such as damage to property, crops and critical infrastructure.
The NOAA report indicates that a staggering 538 people have died as a result of 2021′s 18 events, which is more than twice the number of deaths from all billion-dollar disasters that occurred in 2020.
Moreover, the cost of these disasters does not take into account their toll on human health and well-being nor their growing toll on habitat and biodiversity.
Camilo Mora, a professor at the University of Hawaii whose research focuses on the impact of human activities on biodiversity patterns, is concerned about how human-caused climate change is already affecting weather and climate extremes.
“What we are seeing now with these increasing disasters is with just one degree of warming on our planet,” Mora said. “Looking into the future, our best-case scenario is 1.5 degrees of warming, and the worst case is 5 degrees. We have to choose now between bad or terrible outcomes.”
Mora added that this warming and rise in weather disasters could have devastating impacts on ecosystems.
“When you look back 500 million years at the evolution of the planet, one of the worst extinction events in the history of our planet was caused by warming,” Mora said. “We can’t say exactly if it will be the same, but I can tell you based on the past that it can be pretty bad.”
The rise in billion-dollar disasters in the United States is especially worrisome considering that it’s difficult to measure how these events are changing in more vulnerable parts of the world, Mora noted. Disasters take an even greater toll on nations with more fragile infrastructure and fewer resources to bounce back in their aftermath.
“The poorest countries in the world are the ones that we know the least about,” Mora said “So if it is already bad in the countries that have the money to study, you can just imagine what is happening in the developing countries.”
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.