Billions (with a B): Disasters Rising Sharply with Climate Change

April 18, 2018


The number of weather and climate events causing more than $1B each in damages, by year, since 1980. Colored segments of each bar subdivide the total by hazard type. Source:

This season of severe storms is consistent with predictions and observations of the past 3 decades.

Welcome to the rest of our lives.

Deke Arndt of NOAA:

Speaking of shockers, the first quarter of 2018 saw three billion-dollar weather or climate disasters: all of them synoptic weather systems that produced significant snowfall in the Northeast—and one of them produced significant severe weather in the South.

Those three events brought the total number of “billion dollar disasters” since 1980 up from 219 at the end of 2017 to 230.

Wait, what?

The Billion Dollar Disaster list is adjusted for inflation, using the Consumer Price Index. Each year, the master list may take on “new” events from the past, when their inflation-adjusted damages rise above $1B in today’s dollars.

That’s what happened this year. A total of eight events crossed that $1B mark, once 2018 dollars were considered. Which eight events? The ones with an asterisk* in this list (pro tip: sort by cost; obviously, they’re all close to the bottom).

Weather and Climate?

So, these were pretty obviously three weather events. How’s the climate part come in?

One major driver of losses was flooding due to the Nor’easter version of “storm surge.” The Boston area experienced significant flooding in two of the storms.

Onshore flooding is a combination of factors: winds, atmospheric pressure, the tidal phase during an event, infrastructure, and so on. But with all that said, the mean sea level in the Boston area is about half a foot higher than it was 50 years ago.

Here, isolating just severe storms.


So, all things being equal…

Okay, let’s stop for a second. When comparing situations across changes in the climate system, all things are not equal. They never are. (Would the tidal phase during two storms that occurred 50 years apart necessarily be equal? The infrastructure development on the coast? The exact scale, intensity, and location of the larger weather pattern? And so on.). But I say it to isolate relative contributions of the different components of a complex system, and to address how the weight of one contributor may change over time.

Okay, with that said, starting over…

Relative sea level in and around Boston has risen about half a foot in the last 50 years. So, all else being equal, the same storm 50 years ago would have six inches less water to push inland. That’s a big, big difference, and one that has developed on the climate scale.

That’s how climate comes in, even in these weather events. Many times, in the discussion of weather and climate, we mistakenly consider these two words, and the concepts they define, to be mutually exclusive frames. They’re not. Much like you and me, they share more than they don’t. Much like you and me, they can co-exist despite of their differences.

Going forward, we’ll get more comfortable recognizing this as we diagnose big events.

Science Daily:

High tide floods, or so-called “nuisance flooding,” that happen along shore roadways during seasonal high tides or minor wind events are occurring far more frequently than ever before. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have found that in the past 20 years roads along the East Coast have experienced a 90 percent increase in flooding — often making the roads in these communities impassable, causing delays, as well as stress, and impacting transportation of goods and services.

“This could be just the beginning of impact on these areas,” said Jennifer Jacobs, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “With the continued rise in sea levels, nuisance-flood frequency is projected to grow and the effect on the physical roads and the people that live along the coastline is concerning.”

In their study, recently published in the journal Transportation Research Record, the researchers found that tidal nuisance flooding threatens over 7,500 miles of roadways along the entire East Coast, with over 400 miles of that being interstate roads. They estimate that this causes over 100 million hours of delays each year for drivers on those roads and that number could rise to more than 3.4 billion hours by 2100. By the middle of the century (2056 -2065), they predict nuisance flooding could occur almost daily at specific sites along the shores of Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, the District of Columbia, North Carolina, and Florida under an intermediate sea-level-rise scenario.

“As tidal coastal flooding increases in the coming years, there will also be issues with the transportation infrastructure,” said Jacobs. “We’ve already seen billions of dollars in damage to coastal roadways from recent hurricanes. In the future, with rising sea levels, we expect to see more frequent issues, more damage, and impact to roadways even farther inland.”


5 Responses to “Billions (with a B): Disasters Rising Sharply with Climate Change”

  1. John Mirsky Says:

    Munich RE, one of the largest reinsurers, publishes trends in global losses from all types of national disasters, insured and uninsured, in total dollars, not just events. They have climbed steadily, indeed dramatically, in the last 35 years; see:

    The information is significant as it comes from industry – not from one some might say is a biased source – and helps validates projections that property, including infrastructure, will increasingly suffer from meteorological, hydrological and climatological events as the climate changes. Therefore, it provides an economic justification for climate action spending.

    A deeper dive into this in a future blog post would be interesting.

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    Extreme heat in 2016 damaged Australia’s Great Barrier Reef much more substantially than initial surveys indicated, according to ongoing studies that have tracked the health of the coral treasure. The heatwave caused massive bleaching of the corals that captured worldwide attention.

    In a paper published on 18 April in Nature, researchers report1 that severe bleaching on an unprecedented scale triggered mass death of corals. This drastically changed the species composition of almost one-third of the 3,863 individual reefs that comprise the Great Barrier Reef.

    The world’s largest coral reef is unlikely to recover soon. The damage is a harbinger of what a warming future might hold for a wealth of tropical reef ecosystems, says lead study author Terry Hughes, director of the coral-reef centre at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “If we fail to curb climate change, and global temperatures rise far above 2 °C [above the pre-industrial level], we will lose the benefits they provide to hundreds of millions of people.”

    => Great Barrier Reef saw huge losses from 2016 heatwave

    One-third of reefs in the world’s largest coral system were transformed by warmed waters, finds comprehensive underwater and aerial survey.

  3. redskylite Says:

    Statistics show sharp rise in disaster as the century matures. . . and yet are Americans ready for the next one ?

    In tech we trust – but less than half of Americans are ready for the next disaster

    Just four in 10 people know who to contact for information during an emergency

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