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NOAA Chief: U.S. Record of a Dozen Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in One Year Is “a Harbinger of Things to Come”

By Joe Romm on December 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm

"NOAA Chief: U.S. Record of a Dozen Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in One Year Is “a Harbinger of Things to Come”"

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released an analysis, “U.S. sets record with a dozen billion-dollar weather disasters in one year.”  They report:

  • To date, the United States set a record with 12 separate billion dollar weather/climate disasters in 2011, with an aggregate damage total of approximately $52 billion. This record year breaks the previous record of nine billion-dollar weather/climate disasters in one year, which occurred in 2008.
  • These twelve disasters alone resulted in the tragic loss of 646 lives, with the National Weather Service reporting over 1,000 deaths across all weather categories for the year.
  • Previously only 10 events were reported; the two new billion-dollar weather and climate events added to the 2011 total include:
    • The Texas, New Mexico, Arizona wildfires event, now exceeding $1 billion, had been previously accounted for in the larger Southern Plains drought and heatwave event. This is in line with how NOAA has traditionally accounted for large wildfire events as separate events.
    • The June 18-22 Midwest/Southeast Tornadoes and Severe Weather event, which just recently exceeded the $1 billion threshold

UPDATE:  ClimateWire (subs. req’d) reported on Thursday:

this year was not an aberration, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said during a speech here yesterday.

The seemingly endless onslaught of floods, droughts, wildfires, windstorms, blizzards and tornadoes that have marked 2011 fit within an ongoing increase in the number of natural disasters recorded in the United States, she said, citing statistics maintained by reinsurer Munich Re.

And at least some of that increase appears to be driven by climate change, Lubchenco said, citing a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying,” the NOAA chief told attendees of the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting.

In September 2010, Munich Re one of the world’s leading reinsurers, wrotethe only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.”  Here is the chart on their statistics:

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE OR COMMENT


In January, they summed up 2010 this way:  “The high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change.”

You may recall my repost last month of Dr. Jeff Masters’ analysis, “Fourteen U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters in 2011: a new record.”

The difference is these two storms:

NOAA continues to collect and assess data regarding several other extreme events that occurred this year including the pre-Halloween winter storm that impacted the Northeast and the wind/flood damage from Tropical Storm Lee. Currently, these events are not over the $1B threshold using the available data.

They beat the threshold according to Masters, easily, in the case of the Pre-Halloween storm:

No, not all of those events can be attributed to climate change, but climate change almost certainly made most of them worse (see “Tornadoes, extreme weather, and climate change“).  As climatologist Kevin Trenberth always reminds us:

One of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.

And lumping the Texas drought and wildfires as one single disaster suggests, if nothing else, the scale of the extreme weather catastrophes to come (see “Nature Publishes My Piece on Dust-Bowlification and the Grave Threat It Poses to Food Security“).

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23 Responses to NOAA Chief: U.S. Record of a Dozen Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in One Year Is “a Harbinger of Things to Come”

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Just imagine what those graphs are going to look like in 5 years time, or even another 2, ME

  2. Bryan S says:

    Yet El Niño gets the bad rap for being the bad guy when it comes to weather. That’s simply not true. El Niño is our friend. La Niña is the beast we have to look out for. Look at recent years with La Niña present: 2011, 2008, 1998. Meanwhile, look at years with no La Niña with an El Niño: 2002, 1997, 1994, 1991, 1987, 1982. La Niña is the great amplifier of weather. Dry areas become drier, wet areas become wetter, cold areas become colder, hot areas become hotter. Look at the devastating flooding in Thailand or the 40″ of rain that fell in June in Mumbai. Compare that to El Niño, which is the great “equalizer”… cold areas see mild winters with cooler summers and the desert SW sees beneficial rains and snows. Sure, El Niño means more tornadoes in the southern plains… but fewer tornadoes overall. Look at major tornado outbreak years: 2011, 2008, 1974.. all had strong La Niñas.

    • adelady says:

      El Nino / La Nina. Swings and roundabouts.

      It all depends on which side of the Pacific you’re looking at such things. An El Nino year in the dry areas of Australia is not a pretty thing.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Mike Davis’ ‘Late Victoria Holocausts’ examines a number of great famines, in India and China, in the 18th to 20th centuries, all exacerbated by colonial malevolence, and mostly attributable to El Nino. I may be wrong, but as you say, it’s swings and roundabouts-good for some, bad for others. The very grave danger, however, is that these oscillations will be more marked, less predictable, and accompanied by wild derangements of the hydrological cycle, hence more and deeper droughts, interspersed with deluges of Noachite intensity. Not good for food production.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Bryan, my comment was about extrapolating the curves into the future. It’s pretty clear that events have gone exponential. A moving average or other form of smoothing would show that, regardless of whether it was El Nino or La Nina in force at the time.

      As Adelady points out, one system phase may be beneficial for some regions but devastating for others. This is what the global, rather than US only, graphs show.

      There is also evidence that I have read recently that the regularity of El Nino, La Nina and normal interludes have gone unstable and we can no longer rely on previous records to predict our futures.

      I heard today that the current La Nina is intensifying despite predictions of its decline. Its time to go back to basics and treat cycles like the symptoms that are, ME

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Precisely ME-the past is no longer any guide to the near future, let alone the medium and longer terms. The passage through intense climatic chaos to a new ‘steady-state’ climate has been predicted, although, with the fanatical determination of the pathocratic Right to burn every last ton of coal more clearly apparent every day, I doubt that we will reach that new climatic regime for a very long time, and it may be incompatible with our continued existence.

    • Al says:

      Interesting observation. Thanks. Regarding future outbreaks of extreme weather I worry most about drought and heat waves as crop yield goes down significantly w/ inc. in temp. This past decade saw a rather “lazy” sun with a minimum that nearly broke all records in the past 100 years….irradiance fell but temps still went up. This max which we are entering now will be quite low and observations show little zonal flow so cycle 25 may also be a dud….in fact, some astrophysicists are predicting a repeat of a Maunder Min. If this transpires this lucky coincidence just might save us if we have the foresight to act. We cannot be lulled into inaction for eventually the sun’s normal activity will resume and we will suffer extreme heat and near total destruction of ag output as CO2 will be quite high then. Not worried about 2012….worried about 2022-23 or 2033-34.

      • Bryan S says:

        Merrelyn- Extrapolating curves into the future is a very dangerous game to get into. You will be let down nearly every time. My bet is that 2011 will appear to have been an outlier for quite a number of years… but that the general trend will be moving upward in a steady march. As for El Niño and La Niña… they are hardly “swings and roundabouts”… they are two distinct climate phenomena that work in tandem to store and release heat on a global scale. La Niña acts to store heat under the surface of the ocean as strong trade winds carry sun-warmed water westward to Indonesia where it is forced downward. When spring comes in the northern hemisphere, these processes naturally weaken with the change of seasons. Many times, the warmth of the western Pacific overwhelms the current and “sloshes” eastward and upward, resulting in El Niño, which then releases much of that built up heat into the atmosphere… hence the global temp rise during El Niño. You cannot look at it as a zero sum game in the short term, however, as El Niño and La Niña vary in intensity and frequency on a multi-decadal scale. La Niñas were more frequent and more intense than El Niños during the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and again in the past several years while El Niños were more common and much stronger during the late 19th/early 20th century, and again in the 1980s and 90s. Only the 1920s, 30s, and 40s showed an unusual lack of either phase, which coincided with whacky global weather… but 1939-1942 was the only true 3 year El Niño event we know of dating back to 1871. (The 1991-1995 even doesn’t count since there were periods in 1992, 1993, and 1994 where conditions became officially neutral for short periods). These multi-decadal trends are independent of AGW and do have an effect of masking and amplifying the warming trend. Anybody who told you El Niño and La Niña are simply “swings and roundabouts” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Too much time spent looking at long term climate models perhaps.. which cannot accurately forecast changes in ENSO (hence why they overestimate warming during the mid-20th century and underestimate it in the early 20th century when hindcasting). They’ve tried hard to tweak atmospheric sensitivity to various atmospheric gases to make up the difference, but then that just causes the model to misfire on modern warming. Until scientists have a better grasp on how ENSO operates, we cannot accurately predict it more than a few months down the line… and until we can master that, it won’t factor correctly into global climate models which simply adds more uncertainty to future warming amounts.

        • Bryan S says:

          As for the weather impacts of ENSO: My point was not that some places don’t see adverse weather during El Niño. The failing of the monsoon during intense EL Niño events in southern Asia and the droughts in Australia can be devastating and cause immense human suffering. But this article is about the U.S. for the most part, and the U.S. often sees beneficial weather during El Niño in the form of reduced heating bills in the north and replenishment of scarce water sources of the southwest and south central parts of the country. On a global scale, during the Medieval Warm Period, La Niña became nearly permanent for several centuries which contributed to the crippling drought in the southwest and Mexico, but also led to the mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers that aided food production and population growth in Europe. When the Little Ice Age came around, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (at least from climate reconstruction proxies) became positive, like it was in the 80s and 90s, and El Niños became more common… but more importantly, there was much more uncertainty in the weather. Suddenly there would be a couple good, warm summers in Europe followed by a string of miserable, cold, wet summers that would lead to widespread hunger. Such is the curse of a colder world: More uncertainty, more storms, etc. This is because when the planet is cooler, the temperature difference between equator and pole grows. This creates more violent weather as the planet attempts to “equalize”. As the planet warms, the Arctic warms much faster, reducing the gradient from equator to pole. This results in fewer, weaker mid latitude storms and according to some studies, reduces hurricane impacts on the U.S. as a positive North Atlantic Oscillation phase is favored, which forces storms to recurve back out into the Atlantic before reaching land. Of course the driver behind these documented changes is the sun. We aren’t warming the planet by increasing the heat source, but my simply letting less heat out.. that could have very different impacts since the distribution of energy is changed. We’re all in for a treat as far as the unexpected is concerned.

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            Bryan, I have nothing but the greatest respect for your detailed knowledge but I do know my way around a few statistics and it is as clear to me as a nobody as it is to numerous others who are much more luminary than me that the whole climate system has not only gone unstable, it has also gone beyond the bounds of our predictive powers because our tools are mainly based on a mechanistic model while the Earth is showing us that it is a system, defying all the predictions so far based on mechanistic assumptions.

            All our predictions are based on stability and linear projections but that is no longer the reality we are living with. Look around you.

            I don’t believe from the accumulated evidence that 2010-2011 were outliers: they are merely the harbingers of our futures – and you are absolutely right, our future is one of great uncertainty. But it won’t be determined by ENSO, it will be determined by the total CO2e accumulated in the biosphere and heaven only knows what the next few years will see. Destabilization by defintion means increased relevant uncertainty and lower predictive power. I for one am not looking foward to the treat, ME

          • Timeslayer says:

            Merrelyn,

            I think you’re absolutely right. The weather disasters of 2011 are the “new normal” right now, and in just 5-10 years, we’ll be going through far worse.

            TS

      • Michael Hertel says:

        The nations of the world should impose a 10% tax on the fossil fuels which increases 1% per month for a while, this will encourage a shift to other sources of energy and also make more conservation make sense from an economic viewpoint.

        In addition I think we could begin setting piping in place in the desert areas of the world to bring water to them from wetter areas nearby. Even if the water brought in was salty if allowed to evaporate there it would fall as fresh clean rain somewhere and while in the form of cloud cover during the day might help cool the earth.

  3. David B. Benson says:

    Maybe better to consider decaal averages?

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Real Mayan Apocalypse May Have Been Their Own Fault

    Using new reconstructions of vegetation stretching back 2,000 years, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies climatologist Benjamin Cook and colleagues found that forest-clearing by Mayan farmers worsened drought conditions in the area.
    http://www.livescience.com/17315-mayans-contribute-apocalypse.html

    Has Video

  5. Joan Savage says:

    This is a reminder to continue to plug for funding for NOAA satellites. Without their advanced warning of severe weather conditions, we would have seen many more injuries and fatalities this year.

    The shocking financial losses are only one indicator of severity of weather events, while deaths are unquestionably also a marker of severity. In the early 20th century, catastrophes were less frequent, but they came with greater loss of life than we have seen this year. The satellites make a huge difference, as forewarned humans can flee or seek shelter even while structures and crops take a beating.

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    Extreme Weather Map
    2011: Thousands of Weather Records Broken in the US, Costs Climbing – and Climate Change a Factor

    Climate change increases the risk of record-breaking extreme weather events that threaten communities across the country. In 2011, there were at least 2,941 monthly weather records broken by extreme events that struck communities in the US. Check out the interactive map below to find out what events hit your area from January to October 2011.
    http://www.nrdc.org/health/extremeweather/default.asp

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Rainfall during June to September’s monsoon season in northern and central Thailand was up to 80% higher than the seasonal average, says the WMO.

    The situation came to a head in October as already inundated natural waterways combined with high tides to swamp the Thai capital Bangkok.

    Among the other more notable extremes of weather in 2011, says Trewin, were the huge weather disparities experienced in the U.S.
    http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/07/world/europe/floods-fire-weather-2011/index.html?hpt=hp_bn4

  8. Aaron Lewis says:

    Heat from AGW has been accumulating in our weather system for a full century. For the last 50 years was have seen increasing feedbacks such as changes in the distribution of water vapor.

    Without the heat of AGW the scope and effect of each weather disaster in the last few years would have been very different.

  9. a face in the clouds says:

    This looks like a good opportunity to ask a question I’ve had on my mind for a while. Some months back, both James Hansen and Joe Bastardi reportedly predicted an El Nino in 2011. Among other things, it was striking that Hansen and Bastardi seemed to agree on something for perhaps the first time in their lives. Anyway, here in Central Texas an El Nino is considered good news because it normally means a rainy period and, brother, did we need it. However, we instead got another round of La Nina and the hot, dry weather which usually attends.

    Were these forecasts misreported or did something get lost in the translation between the forecasters and the public?

    Perhaps I should add that any El Nino predictions likely went through one ear and out the other in Texas because every living thing seemed to be scattering in advance of the summer of ’11. Humans also sensed epic heat and drought was on the way but sometimes you can’t crouch far enough. It’s only been a couple of months since the end of that nightmare and we are already dreading, even fearing next summer.

    No longer do El Nino and La Nina forecasts simply affect decisions like which flowers to plant in our yards. In barber shops and on college campuses people are wondering how long Texas will be habitable. Class valedictorians mention it in graduation speeches. A lot of big plans and life choices are up in the air. From here on out a lot of these decisions will be based on ENSO and decadal forecasts. Texans are weather savvy by nature and have a pretty good grasp of ENSO and decadal forecasts, but the propagandists for big polluters down here are not going to give up until, I suppose, every last one of us is dead. I know we ask a lot of our institutions and government agencies, but this would be a good time to begin any new educational programs (or highlight old ones) designed to help us see down the road as far as possible because a lot of people are readying themselves to be on the move.

  10. Spike says:

    Climate sensitivity 3.1 to 3.9C in this study from UK

    http://www.soton.ac.uk/mediacentre/news/2011/dec/11_122.shtml