In the past two years, the U.S. has suffered an onslaught of extreme weather, including storms, floods, drought, heat, and fires. The 25 most damaging events took a combined 1,100 lives and caused $188 billion in damages. Seven months into 2013, this year doesn’t look to be much better.
Climate-fueled extreme weather continues to warrant evacuations, burn homes to the ground, and turn towns into pools of debris across the United States. As of July 30, there were 37 presidential disaster declarations, excluding fire management assistance and drought, in 2013.
AON Benfield — a world reinsurance broker that reports on the most damaging extreme weather events every month — estimates that extreme weather, like snow storms, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, caused at least $32 billion in economic damages in the U.S. so far in 2013, which doesn’t take into account continuing drought that caused an estimated $30 billion in damages last year.
These storms ravaged the country, taking lives, destroying homes and businesses, and reshaping landscapes. With another five months left, here are the worst weather events so far in 2013:
1. Heavy snowstorms follow sporadic winter weather Winter Storm Nemo and other blizzards brought high winds, up to two feet of snow, and severe flooding to central and northeastern states in early February. These storms caused $100 million in losses. A system of storms in late February spread across the Plains, Midwest, Northeast, Texas, and Oklahoma, causing $1 billion in losses after heavy snow, hail, and tornadoes followed by historic late season storms including a blizzard in May. While some said this proved global warming was not happening, in fact the warming Arctic’s effect on the jet stream was likely to blame.
2. Historically large tornadoes slam the Midwest The first severe twisters came unseasonably early in January 2013, pounding the Mississippi Valley and parts of the Midwest with $350 million in damages. On May 20th Moore, Oklahoma, was flattened by a killer tornado, causing 24 fatalities — including 9 children. The tornado also caused $2.5 billion in damages. A week later a violent $2 billion tornado outbreak swept through Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma with more than 80 tornadoes. This system included yet another historically rare EF-5 tornado that passed through El Reno, Oklahoma. It may have been the widest tornado ever recorded, and was responsible for 27 deaths. Climate Progress’ Joe Romm reviews the science of tornadoes and climate change here.
3. Heavy rains and flooding inundate farms, cities, and roadways In April, severe flooding occurred due to snow melt, while scattered rainstorms flooded basements and saturated farmland throughout the Midwest. Damages to homes, crop land, and infrastructure totaled $1.2 billion, and caused 3 deaths. This extreme precipitation followed a season of drought, drenching previously waterless grounds and overwhelming crop land and roadways with large amounts of water in an exceptionally short time. In June, wind, rain, and flood conditions led to a power outage in Minnesota’s Twin Cities that lasted 4 days. A month later, local crews are still trying to clear the damage after 5,000 trees were uprooted in the storm after water oversaturated and weakened the soil.
4. Severe drought and heat waves continue through the South and Southwestern U.S. Increasingly dry southwestern states continue to battle conditions that remain from the Great Drought of 2012. In Texas, a state that suffered $11.9 billion in drought-related losses since 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry extended his 2011 declared drought emergency this June, citing a “historic” and “imminent threat to public health, property, and the economy.” It is expected to continue through 2013. In Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah, pockets of drought and water restrictions are the consequences of record breaking heat. The high temperatures continue to set daily and average records, with Death Valley National Park reaching 129.9 degrees on June 30th. New Mexico suffers from dire water scarcity due to the drought. Its Elephant Butte Reservoir that once held 2.2 million acre-feet of water is now a meager 3 percent full, forcing New Mexicans to desalinate seawater and drill into aquifers as they restrict water use.
5. Wildfires scorch homes and take lives As of July 30, over 2 million acres have burned in 2013 as a result of over 27,000 U.S. wildfires. In fact, every state except Hawaii has had three or more wildfires this year. Climate Progress reported earlier this week that these tragic fires are becoming a regular occurrence. The Black Forest Fire that started on June 11 was one of Colorado’s most destructive fires ever seen in the state, causing $500 million in losses. This exceeded Colorado’s record 2012 blaze, the $435 million Waldo Canyon Fire. This historic Black Forest Fire was followed by the devastating Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that tragically took the lives of 19 elite firefighters. As the threatening fire season continues, forced evacuations in California, Nevada, and Oregon, have become commonplace. July’s Idyllwild Fire in southern California threatened almost 5,600 homes, while the still burning California Mountain Fire that started July 15th has claimed 23 other structures, including 7 homes.
The National Climate Assessment draft report notes that extreme weather is becoming more frequent and severe. It projects that, “droughts…and heat waves everywhere are expected to become more intense in the future,” along with precipitation events and a decrease in length of the frost season.