2011’s Record Number of Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters

The number of Billion dollar weather disasters and total damage costs between 1980- November 2011. Credit: NOAA.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced today that the official list of billion dollar weather and climate disasters in 2011 is now up to 12, smashing the old record of nine, set in 2008.  The total damage from these 12 events alone, says NOAA, stands at $52 billion and still rising — a hefty price tag in any case, but especially tough in a sluggish economy.

The NOAA list got bigger after the agency separated out the Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona wildfires from the larger Southern Plains drought and heat event (it's not cheating: the agency says this is consistent with how it has treated wildfires in the past). In addition, damage from the burst of tornadoes and other severe weather that hit the Midwest and Southeast from June 18-22 has just risen above the $1 billion threshold. The costs of the October snowstorm in the Northeast and Tropical Storm Lee, says NOAA, have not exceeded $1 billion — yet.

That's NOAA's version. As I reported last month, however, a different analysis, from the insurance company Aon Benfield, pegged the number of $1 billion disasters at 14. But whether the total is 12 or 14, one thing is clear: this was a record year for extreme weather in the US. In fact, as the AP's Seth Borenstein noted, “2011 has seen more weather catastrophes that caused at least $1 billion in damage than it did in all of the 1980s, even after the dollar figures from back then are adjusted for inflation.”

While population growth and other factors had a role in these events, global warming likely played a contributing role in at least some of them.Eric Berger, who writes the Sci Guy blog for the Houston Chronicle, spoke with NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who said more years like 2011 — or worse — lie ahead. “We have good reason to believe that what happened this year is not an anomaly, but instead is a harbinger of what is to come,” she said.

This view that society is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events is consistent with the findings in the recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on extreme events and climate change. As Borenstein reported, the number of billion-dollar weather disasters is growing with each decade, from an average of more than one per year in the 1980s to 7.5 during the past two years. 

Here is the complete list of 2011's billion dollar weather and climate events:

  • Groundhog Day Blizzard: January 29-February 3, 2011
  • Midwest and Southeast Tornadoes: April 4-5, 2011
  • Southeast/Midwest Tornadoes: April 8-11, 2011
  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes: April 14-16, 2011
  • Southeast/Ohio Valley/Midwest Tornadoes: April 25-28, 2011
  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes: May 22-27, 2011
  • Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes and Severe Weather: June 18-22, 2011
  • Southern Plains/Southwest Drought and Heatwave: Spring-Fall, 2011
  • Mississippi River Flooding: Spring-Summer, 2011
  • Upper Midwest Flooding: Summer 2011
  • Hurricane Irene: August 20-29, 2011
  • Texas, New Mexico, Arizona Wildfires: Spring-Fall 2011.