When it came to extreme weather and climate events, 2012 was a colossal year for the U.S. It was the warmest year on record in the lower 48 states, featuring a massive drought and deadly heat waves that broke thousands of temperature records. Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and one of the most intense and long-lasting complexes of severe thunderstorms, known as a “derecho,” plunged 4 million people into darkness from Iowa to Virginia.
Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has totaled the losses caused by the 11 most expensive extreme weather and climate disasters in 2012, each of which cost upwards of $1 billion. According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., these billion-dollar events cost the U.S. a total of $110 billion, which puts 2012 behind only 2005 on the list of costliest years since 1980.
Credit: NOAA/National Climatic Data Center
The billion-dollar events in 2012 included seven severe weather and tornado events, including the Midwest to Mid-Atlantic derecho, two hurricanes, and the yearlong drought and related wildfires. Those 11 events alone killed more than 300, NOAA reported. Hurricane Sandy was by far the deadliest and most expensive event, according to NOAA, costing about $65 billion and causing 159 fatalities. The yearlong drought cost about $30 billion.
NOAA found that the drought and related heat waves caused more than 100 direct deaths and an unknown number of indirect fatalities. Heat is the No. 1 weather-related killer in the U.S., according to the National Weather Service.
The drought was the most expansive in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s, and in some places it rivaled the Dust Bowl in intensity. Wildfires fed by the hot and dry conditions burned more than 9.2 million acres nationwide in 2012, which was the third-highest total since 2000. The wildfires caused an estimated $1 billion and resulted in 8 deaths, according to the report.
According to NOAA, the U.S. has seen 144 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. The total cost of those 144 events exceeds $1 trillion, and costs are increasing in large part due to population growth and the sheer number of people and buildings in harm’s way now. But the increasing frequency and severity of some extreme events due to climate change may also be boosting costs.
During the past year, NOAA has been reviewing its methodology to ensure that its estimates are accurate and unbiased by changes in prices, population, and other sources. “In performing these disaster-cost assessments, these statistics were taken from a wide variety of sources and represent, to the best of our ability, the estimated total costs of these events — that is, the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place,” NOAA said. The report incorporated both insured and uninsured losses and estimates from other federal agencies, state governments, insurers, and other sources.