Hit & Run

2017 Was the Costliest Year Ever for Disasters in the U.S.

NOAA finds that hurricanes, fires, floods, and droughts caused $306 billion in losses last year.

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HarveyNOAA
NOAA

2017 was "a historic year of weather and climate disasters," according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Sixteen separate billion-dollar disasters hit the United States, killing 362 people and bringing losses of $306.2 billion. The majority of that figure—$265 billion—can be attributed to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma.

That figure sets a new record, passing the $214.8 billion (inflation-adjusted) worth of damage wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and other storms in 2005.

How much did man-made climate change contribute to these losses? The Washington Post reports that

NOAA experts demurred on this question on a media call, declining to apportion how much of the damage could be attributed to a changing climate as opposed to other factors. One key factor that is also known to be worsening damage is that there is more valuable infrastructure, such as homes and businesses, in harm's way—along coastlines or in areas vulnerable to wildfire.

"For the purposes especially of this product, we do not try to parse those apart," said Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring section at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. "We're more interested in quantifying what's going on. Both the economists and physical scientists will retrospectively look at that, but those sort of happen at the speed of science."

Whatever contribution climate change may have made to last year's disaster damages, the University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., has calculated that the annual cost of weather disasters as a proportion of global GDP from 1990 to 2017 has actually been falling:

WeatherDamagePielke
Roger Pielke, Jr.

That said, Pielke has also pointed out that the world, especially the U.S., has had a remarkable streak of good luck since 2005 when it comes to big weather disasters. That streak came to an end with Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma. Given growing wealth and expanding infrastructure, the mere reversion to earlier weather patterns, particularly if the historical rate of landfalling hurricanes in the U.S. recurs, would necessarily result in more losses.

"Understanding loss potential in the context of inexorable global development and long term climate patterns is hard enough," Pielke notes. "It is made even more difficult with the politicized overlay that often accompanies the climate issue. Fortunately, there is good science and solid data available to help cut through the noise. Bigger disasters are coming—will you be ready?"