There were 14 weather and climate disasters that cost more than $1 billion each across the United States last year, according to new figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Wednesday.
Last year also was the eighth in a row with eight or more billion-dollar disasters. Wildfires, in particular, were “historically damaging,” setting a new record, NOAA stated.
The release of the data, originally due at the beginning of January, was delayed because of the partial government shutdown. As NOAA’s figures published Wednesday show, the more than a dozen billion-dollar disasters included one wildfire, two hurricanes, two winter storms, eight severe storms (including hail, winds, and tornadoes), and “one large drought episode.”
In total, the 14 events claimed the lives of at least 247 people and cost the country $91 billion.
The majority of the costs are linked to just three events: Hurricane Michael caused $25 billion in damages; Hurricane Florence at $24 billion; and the complex of western wildfires that burned for several months totaled $24 billion in costs.
All three of the events were disasters that have been exacerbated by climate change. Scientists have shown that, with warmer ocean temperatures, hurricanes are becoming wetter and more powerful. And as emissions increase and global temperatures rise, the fire season now runs almost year-round.
Hurricane Florence, which made landfall last September, hovered over Wilmington, North Carolina, and dumped so much rain it effectively made the town an island. Hurricane Michael, meanwhile, made landfall weeks later with tornado-force like winds.
And the wildfires in the west — particularly the Camp Fire in California — were among the most damaging in the state’s history. The costs associated with the Camp Fire were so high that the utility company PG&E has filed for bankruptcy as a result of facing billions of dollars in liability for the wildfires. An insurance company also went under due to the fire’s costs.
“The impacts of unchecked climate change are becoming more obvious every year,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce climate hearing on Wednesday.
Many argue the costs of tackling climate change are too high, Pallone said. But he said “the costs of not acting are far higher and more painful.”
“The dollar figures are concerning, but the real tragedy is the loss of life and destruction of homes, businesses, and communities when these events occur,” he said, adding that he saw firsthand how the impacts of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 played out in his home state.
As the committee hearing demonstrated, the impacts of climate change are recognized by both Democrats and Republicans alike. During the hearing, Greg Walden (R-OR) held up a jar filled with ash, stating that it showed what a “post-fire wildlife habitat” looks like: “It’s nothing but ash and the destruction of habitat.”
It wasn’t just hurricanes and wildfires, however, that broke records last year. As NOAA’s data notes, a 24-hour period of intense rainfall in April 2018 on the Hawaiian island of Kauai reaped 49.69 inches of rainfall. “This is the largest verified amount of precipitation observed in 24 hours in the United States,” NOAA stated.
The data also put last year’s devastating events in a historical context. In total, there have been 241 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters since 1980, NOAA revealed. The total cost for all of these exceeds $1.6 trillion.
Over the past 30 years, the average number of these costly events used to be 6.2 per year. During the past five years, the annual average was double that amount.
And as other data released by NOAA and NASA on Wednesday showed, this uptick in billion-dollar climate disasters comes at the same time as record warming; 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record behind 2016, 2015, and 2017.
NOAA’s data dump comes after the agency took to Twitter last week to debunk the president’s climate denial in which he stated that winter storms disproved climate change. One day after the staff returned to work following the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, NOAA officials wrote, “Winter storms don’t prove that global warming isn’t happening.”
The latest information on just how costly climate change was for the country last year also comes the morning after Trump’s State of the Union address, in which mention of climate change was noticeably absent even as many people across the country are still reeling from the after-effects of storms and wildfires.