2017 was a record-breaking year: Climate-related disasters cost the U.S. $300 billion

Severe fires and devastating storms contributed to a historically costly year.

The La Tuna Fire on September 2, 2017 near Burbank, California. CREDIT: David McNew/Getty Images
The La Tuna Fire on September 2, 2017 near Burbank, California. CREDIT: David McNew/Getty Images

According to new analysis released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the third warmest year on record in the United States — and the most costly year ever for weather and climate-related natural disasters.

For the past year, average temperatures for the contiguous United States have been 2.6°F warmer than the 20th century average — an especially noteworthy distinction because 2017 did not have an El Niño episode, which usually gives a temporary boost to global temperatures. This is now the third consecutive year that temperatures across the United States have been above average. Five states — Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina — all had their warmest year on record.

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The release of the annual temperature analysis came as the eastern part of the United States has battled bitter cold temperatures in recent weeks, causing some climate denying politicians — like President Donald Trump or Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) — to dismiss climate change as a hoax. The analysis, however, lends even more credence to the idea that the planet is steadily warming, with five of the hottest years on record coming since 2006.

Beyond temperatures, 2017 also set a record for economic losses associated with climate-fueled disasters. From Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria to a record wildfire year in the West, sixteen weather and climate-related events — each with losses exceeding $1 billion — cost the United States more than $300 billion in 2017. The previous record of $215 billion occurred in 2005, following massive losses to property, infrastructure, and human life associated with Hurricane Katrina. While Hurricane Katrina remains the most costly single natural disaster in U.S. history, Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma join the list as the second, third, and fifth costliest disasters on record, respectively.

Hurricane Harvey, which pummeled the Gulf Coast with more than two feet of rain in late August, was the costliest disaster of the year, with more than $125 billion in damage. Hurricane Maria, which tore through the Caribbean in September, was the second most costly disaster of the year, causing some $90 billion in damages. More than four months after the storm first hit Puerto Rico, residents on the island are still living with the effects of Hurricane Maria, from persistent blackouts (a little more than half of residents have electricity) to raw sewage in waterways.

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Following a particularly wet winter — which, after years of prolonged drought, encouraged the growth of underbrush and other fuels — the western United States, and especially California, suffered through an incredibly volatile and costly fire season in 2017. Fueled by above-average temperatures, low precipitation totals, and high winds, the Thomas fire — which erupted in Southern California in early December — became the state’s largest ever fire and the first ever major December fire in California history.

In total, wildfires throughout the West caused $18 billion in damage and resulted in 54 deaths. Fire suppression costs for the Forest Service totaled over $2 billion for the 2017 fire season, the most expensive season on record for the agency.

Apart from the economic losses associated with 2017’s natural disasters, affected communities will bear the public health costs of the storms, fires, and floods for years to come. Studies of mental illness following natural disasters suggest that survivors often exhibit depression and anxiety in response to the loss of property and belongings; a 2015 study published in the Lancet characterized mental health disorders associated with climate-fueled disasters one of the most dangerous “indirect” impacts of climate change.

Those impacts have already begun to manifest in areas devastated by 2017’s disasters. In Puerto Rico, residents have reported intense feelings of anxiety or depression following Hurricane Maria — and the persistent lack of access to electricity and clean water continues to fuel a public health crisis on the island. In Northern California, which was devastated by a spate of September fires that killed 40 and forced tens of thousands from their homes, residents have also reported feelings of increased stress and anxiety since the disasters.