This year has been “anything but ordinary” according to the latest data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the first three months of 2018, the United States has seen three climate and weather disasters each resulting in more than $1 billion in damages.
Two of the four nor’easters to hit the central and eastern U.S. during a one month period resulted in record snowfall and more than a billion dollars in losses each. Millions were without power and hundreds of flights were grounded. Multiple deaths were reported across Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia.
In mid-March, a deadly storm also hit the Gulf Coast with reports of dangerous winds, hail, and tornadoes. At least three people died and 20 tornadoes were reported in Alabama.
“It has been quite some time since the U.S. has experienced multiple, billion-dollar winter storm events,” said Adam Smith, the NOAA scientist who compiled the data.
All told, the January to March period of the past three years has had the highest frequency of billion-dollar disasters on record since 1980 — with 2018 surpassed only by 2016 and 2017.
As Smith told ThinkProgress via email, not only is the number of billion-dollar winter storms experienced in the past few years increasing, but the cost of these winter storms are increasingly above average compared to the 1990s, when a series of damaging storms — including a 1997-98 ice storm that hit the northeast — crippled parts of the country.
While the link between tornadoes and climate change is still tenuous, scientists know that climate change is making nor’easters more powerful.
Nor’easters form when warm ocean air converges with cold terrestrial air. They are more powerful in the winter when the temperature difference is greatest. Climate change is making the temperature contrast even more pronounced, both by warming the Atlantic and by distorting the jet stream, allowing frigid Arctic air to reach further south. Rising temperatures in the Arctic are responsible for reshaping the jet stream.
Like with summertime hurricanes, winter nor’easters start in the ocean. And with warmer waters, these storms become more intense. According to Accuweather, this year’s series of devastating nor’easters spent more time forming over the ocean, giving them a chance to increase in strength by absorbing more of the warmer ocean temperatures.
Additionally, with higher sea levels come more devastating storm surges. Massachusetts, for example, was repeatedly hit with coastal flooding during this year’s winter storms.
As Smith noted, the cost of winter storms still “often pale in comparison” to the costs of hurricanes and drought experienced during the summer and fall seasons. As ThinkProgress reported last month, insurance companies have reported billions in damages from the 2017 hurricanes alone. According to annual reports recently filed by 15 major U.S. insurers, natural disasters in 2017 have so far cost the industry at least $14.5 billion.
While many in Texas and in Puerto Rico are still trying to recover from the devastating impact of last year’s storms, early forecasts expect the upcoming hurricane season to be another big one. According to meteorologists’ estimates, there’s a 60 percent chance of a major hurricane hitting the United States in the coming year.