NewsDecember 20, 2012

NOAA: 2012 To Rank as Second Costliest Year Since 1980

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Andrew Freedman

By Andrew Freedman

During 2012, there were 11 extreme weather and climate events in the U.S. that reached the billion dollar threshold in losses, according to figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Thursday. While the total number of billion dollar natural disasters is down from 2011, when there were a record 14 events costing more than $60 billion, the economic losses this year are expected to exceed last year's tab, largely due to the massive economic toll caused by Hurricane Sandy and the widespread drought.

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

Some cost estimates for Hurricane Sandy alone have approached $100 billion, and the drought is likely to be nearly, if not more, expensive.

The 11 billion dollar events of 2012 include seven severe thunderstorm outbreaks, two hurricanes, the drought and wildfires. NOAA put the death toll from these events at 349.

According to two NOAA climatologists, the ongoing drought, which still encompasses more than half of the lower 48 states, is the most extensive drought event since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl droughts were more intense, however, and lasted longer than the current drought has so far.

The 11 Billion-Dollar Disasters in 2012DateEventMarch
2-3Southeast/Ohio Valley TornadoesApril 
2-3Texas TornadoesApril 
13-14Great Plains TornadoesApril 28 -
May 1 Midwest/Ohio Valley
Severe WeatheMay 
25-30Southern Plains/Midwest/Northeast
Severe WeatherJune
Severe WeatherJune 29 –
July 2Plains/East/Northeast
Severe Weather (“Derecho”)Aug.
26-31Hurricane IsaacSummer –
FallWestern WildfiresOctober 
29-31Hurricane SandyThroughout
2012U.S. Drought/Heatwave

Global warming is influencing certain types of extreme weather and climate events, especially heat waves, wildfires, and extreme precipitation events. Studies have shown, for example, that global warming increases the odds of extreme heat events, and several unusual heat waves, most especially a March heat event, helped spread and intensify the drought.

However, Jake Crouch, a climatologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), said it is difficult to make direct connections between climate change and the economic losses from extreme events seen this year, or in other years.

“Climate change is having a role in these events but how much of a role is hard to tell at this time,” Crouch said. Many other factors, including socioeconomic trends such as a rising population that is exposing more people and infrastructure to extreme weather events, are helping to drive disaster loss trends.

In a change from 2011, NOAA did not release an aggregate cost estimate from the billion dollar disasters in 2012. Scientists said the agency is revising the ways it adjusts disaster losses for inflation to ensure the data is sound. The total losses from 2012 will be released in the middle of 2013, said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist with NCDC.

Smith said it is clear that 2012 was a more expensive year for natural disasters than 2011. In fact, the year is likely to rank as the second most expensive year for natural disaster losses since 1980, second only to 2005, when four hurricanes, including Hurricane Katrina, made landfall along the Gulf Coast. Those storms, along with other extreme events that year, caused $187.2 billion in damage, when adjusted for inflation to 2012 dollars.

Although 2012 is likely to exceed the losses incurred last year, more people were killed by extreme weather and climate events in 2011 than in 2012, Smith said. That is largely due to the devastating tornado season last year, when 551 people lost their lives, the highest death toll since reliable records began in 1950.

In contrast, 2012 saw a very quiet tornado season, thanks in part to the ongoing drought. As of Dec. 18, the U.S. had not had a tornado-related fatality in 177 days, the longest such streak in two decades. Of the seven severe thunderstorm outbreaks on the 2012 billion dollar disaster list, only two are tornado outbreaks. The rest, such as the July derecho event in the Ohio Valley and Mid-Atlantic, were losses due to straight-line winds and hail.

Related Content:
2012 May Rank as 2nd Most Disastrous Year Since 1980
2011's Record Number of Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters
Ongoing Coverage of Historic Hurricane Sandy
Global Warming May Have Fueled March Heat Wave Odds
Hansen Study: Extreme Weather Tied to Climate Change