DENVER — Costly weather disasters continued to hit America last year, with 18 extreme weather events hitting the nation, each causing at least $1 billion in damage each, for a total of more than $165 billion, federal climate scientists estimated Tuesday.
While 2022 was nowhere near the hottest year on record for the United States, it was the nation’s third wildest year for both the number of extreme weather events costing $1 billion and the total damage from those weather disasters, according to in a report published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the American Meteorological Society conference.
The number, cost, and death toll of billion-dollar disasters is a key inflation-adjusted measurement NOAA uses to see how severe human-caused climate change is becoming. They resulted in at least 474 deaths.
“People are seeing the effects of a changing climate system where they live, work and play on a regular basis,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said at a news conference Tuesday. “With a changing climate, get some sleep. More extreme events are expected.”
Hurricane Ian, the worst drought in a decade and a pre-Christmas winter storm pushed last year’s damage to the highest level since 2017. The only costlier years were 2017 – when Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria hit – and the disastrous 2005, when many hurricanes Federal Meteorologists said hit the Southeast, led by Katrina. The only busier years for billion-dollar disasters were 2020 and 2021.
Ian was the third-largest U.S. hurricane with $112.9 billion in damage, officials said, followed by $22.2 billion in damage from the drought in the West and Midwest, which halted barge traffic on the Mississippi River. The $165 billion total for 2022 doesn’t even include the winter storm total from three weeks ago, which could push it to $170 billion, officials said.
More than 40% of the continental United States has been in official drought conditions for 119 consecutive weeks, a record in the 22-year history of federal drought monitoring, easily beating the old mark of 68 consecutive weeks, Spinrad said. In 2022, the country reached a peak drought of 63% of the country. Spinrad said he expects the atmospheric river of torrential rain in California to bring some relief, but not much.
“Climate change is making many of these extreme disasters more likely to cause billion-dollar disasters,” said NOAA climate scientist and economist Adam Smith, who calculates catastrophes by updating them to take out inflation. He said more people are building unsafely, along expensive coasts and rivers, and the lack of strict building standards is also a problem. He said with much of the development on the beach, real estate inflation could be a small, localized factor.
“The United States has some of the most consistently diverse and intense weather and climate extremes you will see in many parts of the world. And we have a large population that is vulnerable to these extremes,” Smith told The Associated Press. “So there’s really an imbalance right now.”
Climate change is a hard-to-ignore factor in extremes, from deadly heatwaves to droughts and floods, Smith and other officials said.
“The risk of extreme events is increasing, and they are affecting every corner of the world,” said NOAA Chief Scientist Sarah Kapnick.
The problem is particularly acute when it comes to dangerous heat, said NOAA climatologist Stephanie Herring, who edits an annual study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that calculates how many extreme weather events in past years have been made worse by climate change.
“Research shows that these extreme heat events are also likely to become the new normal,” Herring told a weather conference.
According to Smith, since about 2016, the U.S. has seen a dramatic increase in the size and number of high-cost extreme acts. Over the past seven years, 121 billion-dollar weather events have caused more than $1 trillion in damage and claimed more than 5,000 lives.
Those years overshadow what happened in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s. For example, in the entire decade of the 1990s, there were 55 different multi-billion dollar disasters that cost a total of $313 billion and claimed 3,062 lives.
“It’s not just one, but many, many different types of extreme events across much of the country,” Smith said. “If there were extremes on the Bingo map, we’ve almost filled the map over the last few years.”
There were nine billion-dollar non-tropical storms in 2022, including a derecho, three hurricanes, two tornado outbreaks, one flood, one winter storm, a megadrought, and costly wildfires. The only common type of weather event missing was freezes, which caused $1 billion or more in crop damage, Smith said. And last month, Florida came close, but missed it by a degree or two and some preventative measures by farmers, he said.
That averted freeze was one of two “silver linings” in the 2022 extremes, Smith said. Second, the wildfire season, while costing well over $1 billion, has not been as severe as in years past, except in New Mexico and Texas, he said.
During the first 11 months of 2022, California experienced the second driest year on record, but because of the atmospheric river that began in December, this year is only the ninth driest on record for California, NOAA climate monitoring chief Karyn Gleason said.
With La Nina cooling the eastern Pacific for the third year in a row, which typically alters weather patterns around the world and moderates global warming, 2022 is only the 18th warmest year on US record. Gleason said.
“It’s been a warm year, certainly above average for most of the country, but nothing off the charts,” Gleason said. The average temperature in the country was 53.4 degrees (11.9 degrees Celsius), which is 1.4 degrees (0.8 degrees) higher than the average for the 20th century.
The year was 1.5 inches (3.8 centimeters) below normal for rain and snow, the 27th driest in 128 years, Gleason said.
On Thursday, NOAA and NASA will announce how hot the globe will be in 2022, which won’t be a record, but will likely be one of the seven or so hottest years. The European climate monitoring group Copernicus published its calculations on Tuesday, saying 2022 was the fifth hottest year in the world and the second hottest in Europe.
U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap heat and cause global warming, will rise 1.3% in 2022, according to a report released Tuesday by the Rhodium Group think tank. This is less than the economy grew. The increase in emissions was driven by cars, trucks and industry, with electricity generation polluting slightly less.
For the second year in a row since the lockdown was eased, America’s carbon pollution is rising after a fairly steady decline for several years. That makes it less likely that the United States will meet its pledge to halve carbon emissions by 2030 from 2005 levels, according to the Rhodium report.
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