By Adriana Lopez
One impact of climate change is that the number and severity of climate-related disasters is on the rise.
With the warming of the planet, several factors combine to make extreme weather more common. Higher temperatures are more likely to produce heat waves and drought conditions, which increases the likelihood of wildfires. Warmer air can hold more water vapor, which leads to wetter storms, and with them, more flooding. Increased heat and evaporation have also combined to make tropical cyclones more common and more severe in recent years.
The financial consequences of these trends are enormous. Loss of life, property damage, infrastructure failures, and business interruptions are some of the widely-felt direct consequences when more intense natural disasters occur. In the U.S., the costs associated with so-called billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events—those in which total damages exceeded $1 billion in today’s dollars—have grown sharply over the last decade, from a five-year annual average of $29.2 billion in 2010 to $121.4 billion in 2020.
Apart from direct damages, even the threat of weather disasters can have financial impacts. Property values in vulnerable areas may shift downward as severe weather disasters become more likely. Insurers can charge higher rates or make coverage harder to obtain for properties that could be at risk.And property owners may find themselves paying a premium for structures that are resistant to weather-related damage. For example, due to increasing numbers of wildfires in California, building codes in fire prone areas now require the use of certain fire-resistant materials, and fire insurance rates have risen to unaffordable levels for many homeowners.
Recent data suggests that these concerns will only continue. The year 2020 set a record with 22 weather events causing at least $1 billion in economic damages, which was the sixth consecutive year with 10 or more such billion-dollar events. And the increase in climate-related disasters is not limited to any one type. Tropical cyclones and severe storms tend to produce more billion-dollar disasters than other types, but over the last five years, the U.S. has also seen freezes, winter storms, wildfires, droughts, and flooding events cross the billion-dollar threshold. In 2020 alone, the U.S. experienced a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season, massive wildfires throughout the West, and hurricane-strength severe storms in the Midwest.
The variety of damaging weather events means that it will be difficult for any region of the country to avoid the impacts of climate disasters, but some states will be more susceptible than others. In particular, the South has experienced more billion-dollar disasters since 1980 than other parts of the country. Texas alone was impacted by 124 such events over the past 31 years. With shorelines on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, many of these Southern states are more likely to experience the worst effects of tropical cyclones, while warmer temperatures bring more precipitation and severe storms to the region in general.
Of the most expensive climate disasters in U.S. history, a majority hit Southern states the hardest. To find the worst disasters, researchers analyzed data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and ranked events based on their estimated cost in 2020 dollars.
The Worst Climate Disasters in U.S. History
10. U.S. Drought/Heatwave
9. Hurricane Ike
8. Midwest Flooding
7. U.S. Drought/Heatwave
6. Hurricane Andrew
5. Hurricane Irma
4. Hurricane Sandy
3. Hurricane Maria
2. Hurricane Harvey
1. Hurricane Katrina
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