With $110 billion in damage, 2012 was the second-costliest year for weather and climate disasters since these records began to be kept in 1980, federal climate scientists announced Thursday. Only 2005 was costlier, with $160 billion in damage, when Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast.
The National Climatic Data Center reported the USA in 2012 had 11 separate weather and climate events that each had losses exceeding $1 billion in damage.
This follows another catastrophic year, 2011, when a record 14 separate billion-dollar disasters were documented.
So is the weather really getting worse? "2011 and 2012 were truly extreme years climatologically, as we saw several types of all-time records shattered," reports climate scientist Adam Smith of the climate center. "We experienced historic tornado outbreaks and large-scale flooding in 2011, crippling drought and heat waves in both 2011 and 2012, and of course, tropical cyclones Irene and Sandy damaging the Northeast.
"This is all compounded by the growing amount of property that exists in harm's way," Smith says.
The two major drivers of damage costs in 2012 were Hurricane Sandy (at approximately $65 billion) and the year-long drought (at approximately $30 billion.)
Sandy was also the nation's deadliest disaster, causing more than 130 fatalities, the climate center reported.
The year 2012 also brought the USA's most widespread drought since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Drought disaster declarations reached more than 2,600 of the nation's 3,143 counties.
One expert isn't convinced the billion-dollar disaster list is all that relevant: "The billion-dollar disaster list is an interesting curiosity," says professor of environmental studies Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado. "It has very little if any scientific or economic merit."
"They find more disasters at the billion-dollar threshold, but the simple explanation for that is that we have more (and more valuable) property and belongings in harm's way," Pielke says. "Further, a billion dollars is not what it used to be."
However, Smith says that even with that caveat, the past couple of years have been unusual: "In 2011 and 2012, we have seen a sharp increase in the number of disasters that create damage in excess of $10 billion each."
And as for the impacts of climate change, Smith reports that "there have been observed trends in some types of extreme events that are consistent with rising temperatures. These include heavy precipitation events, more intense droughts and heat waves."
"Drought and wildfire risk are increasing as temperatures and evaporation rates rise. Research on climate changes' effects on other types of extreme events continues," Smith concludes.
In all, the U.S. has endured 144 weather/climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of these 144 events is more than $1 trillion.