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$110 Billion Price Tag for Extreme Weather Events in 2012

When it came to extreme weather and climate events, 2012 was a colossal year for the U.S. It was the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states, featuring a massive drought and deadly heat waves that broke thousands of temperature records. Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and one of the most intense and long-lasting complexes of severe thunderstorms, known as a “derecho,” plunged 4 million people into darkness from Iowa to Virginia.

Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has totaled the losses caused by the 11 most expensive extreme weather and climate disasters in 2012, each of which cost upwards of $1 billion. According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., these billion-dollar events cost the U.S. a total of $110 billion, which puts 2012 behind only 2005 on the list of costliest years since 1980. 

Credit: NOAA/National Climatic Data Center

The billion-dollar events in 2012 included seven severe weather and tornado events, including the Midwest to Mid-Atlantic derecho, two hurricanes, and the yearlong drought and related wildfires. Those 11 events alone killed more than 300, NOAA reported. Hurricane Sandy was by far the deadliest and most expensive event, according to NOAA, costing about $65 billion and causing 159 fatalities. The yearlong drought cost about $30 billion.

NOAA found that the drought and related heat waves caused more than 100 direct deaths and an unknown number of indirect fatalities. Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service. 

The drought was the most expansive in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, and in some places it rivaled the Dust Bowl in intensity. Wildfires fed by the hot and dry conditions burned more than 9.2 million acres nationwide in 2012, which was the third-highest total since 2000. The wildfires caused an estimated $1 billion and resulted in 8 deaths, according to the report.

According to NOAA, the U.S. has seen 144 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of those 144 events exceeds $1 trillion, and costs are increasing in large part due to population growth and the sheer number of people and buildings in harm’s way now. But the increasing frequency and severity of some extreme events due to climate change may also be boosting costs.

During the past year, NOAA has been reviewing its methodology to ensure that its estimates are accurate and unbiased by changes in prices, population, and other sources. “In performing these disaster-cost assessments,  these statistics were taken from a wide variety of sources and represent, to the best of our ability, the estimated total costs of these events — that is, the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place,” NOAA said. The report incorporated both insured and uninsured losses and estimates from other federal agencies, state governments, insurers, and other sources.

Related Content
2012 May Rank As 2nd Most Disastrous Year Since 1980
Extreme Weather 101: Drought and Our Changing Climate
Ongoing Coverage of Historic Drought in U.S.
Sandy Tops List of 2012 Extreme Weather and Climate Events
Report: The Age of Western Wildfires


By Lewis Cleverdon
on June 14th, 2013

Andrew - I wonder if you have access to any research on the distribution of damages according to their scale ? Setting the eleven quoted above as the top-end outliers of a bell curve and splitting lesser impacts’ losses by order of magnitude, you’d get a spread of classes: $100m to $1.0bn; $10m to $100m; $1m to $10m; $100k to $1m, and so on.

With a clearer idea of the ratio of hits within these classes, it would be possible to project an overall figure for 2012, which at the moment is obscure - while it’s plain that smaller hits are far more numerous, we can’t tell whether the overall figure is double the $110bn listed above or eight times that much.

My interest stems from wanting to identify the point where annual climate impact damage costs exceed US GDP, which is going to be quite a cultural shock I guess, but at present we can’t say if it’s in 2014 or 2024.  The one thing that is clear is that damage costs are on a percentage trend two or three times higher than that of US GDP - assuming the latter stays positive for a few years, so the damages will at some point exceed the economic growth.

So I wonder if you can find anything cogent on the distribution of damages ?



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By Gene (Colorado Springs)
on June 18th, 2013

While losses are indeed difficult for those who experience them,  some perspective is in order.  Americans spend $10 billion per year on cosmetics and we have a $15 trillion economy.

Damage costs increase directly with population size and with where we put things.  For example, the hurricane center has been telling the leadership on the northeast coast (New York and New Jersey) for at least 30 years in my experience as a meteorologist that it was only a matter a time before they would see a major hurricane.  Yet, building in threatened areas proceeded apace and little was done to mitigate the risks.  Same with the Gulf coast.  It should be no surprise that losses increase.

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