NewsNovember 13, 2012

2012 May Rank As 2nd Most Disastrous Year Since 1980

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

With about six weeks remaining in the year, there have already been 11 natural disasters that have cost $1 billion or more in damage, bringing 2012 to second place on the list of top billion-dollar disaster years. The current record-holder is 2011, when there were 14 billion-dollar disasters. The widespread and intense drought — which as of Nov. 6 still covered at least 60 percent of the lower 48 states — and Hurricane Sandy are expected to go down in history as two of the most costly weather-related disasters since 1980.

Photo of coastal flooding in Mantoloking, N.J., taken from an Air National Guard helicopter.
Credit: NJNG/Scott Anema.

The drought alone is expected to cut economic growth by up to 1 percentage point this year, largely due to drops in farm inventories, according to a Bloomberg News report. The last drought that was of comparable intensity occurred in 1988, and it resulted in nearly $40 billion in damages.

The statistics for this year so far are preliminary, and come from news accounts and insurance industry estimates. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which issues the official numbers, has opted to only release the final figures when they are available, rather than keep a running tally as they have done in previous years.

The 11 Billion-Dollar Disasters in 2012DateType LocationDamage
WeatherPlains, Midwest1.75+
WeatherPlains, Midwest,
billionJune 1-
Sept. 30DroughtU.S.**Billions+June 
New Mexico1.75+
billionJune 28-
July 2Severe
26 - 31Hurricane
IsaacGulf Coast2+
Sandy Northeast50+

** No official estimates available as of yet
Credit: AON Benfield except for Hurricane Sandy which is
early estimates based on news reports

According to AON Benfield, a reinsurance company that provides forecasts about the total losses from extreme weather events and other disasters, there were 10 disasters with losses of $1 billion or more through the end of September. But that tally was made before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29, causing at least $50 billion in damage with some estimates putting the final tally much higher than that.

As was the case in 2011, most of the billion-dollar events consist of severe thunderstorm and tornado outbreaks, including a tornado outbreak in early March that caused $4 billion or more in damage, according to AON Benfield.

Hurricane Isaac, which made landfall in southeast Louisiana in late August, cost at least $2 billion, the company’s report said.

Disaster loss data can reflect the frequency and/or intensity of extreme weather and climate events, but socioeconomic factors, such as population growth and coastal development, for example, also influence the data. In addition, historical data on billion-dollar disasters can be biased based on how one adjusts for inflation, and NOAA has been scrutinizing its data closely in the wake of criticism in 2011.

Objective measures of weather and climate phenomena, such as the drought and Hurricane Sandy, show that these events were extraordinary in the context of meteorological history. The Climate Extremes Index, which measures precipitation and temperature extremes across the U.S., was at its second-highest level for the year through the end of October, according to NOAA. The Climate Extremes Index was at 38 percent during the January-through-October period, meaning that 38 percent of the contiguous U.S. experienced top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent extremes in temperature, precipitation, and drought during that period. That was about twice the typical value for the period. 

Related Links
How Global Warming Made Hurricane Sandy Worse
Ongoing Coverage of Hurricane Sandy
Hurricane Sandy Paralyzes New York, New Jersey
Ongoing Coverage of Historic Drought in U.S.
Ongoing Coverage of Earth's Polar Regions
Drought Still Afflicting Nearly 60 Percent of U.S.