Smoke hangs over vineyard in California. Justin Sullivan/GettyImages
Heavy smoke hangs over a vineyard as the Nuns Fire continues to burn on Oct. 10, 2017, in Glen Ellen, California.

How large weather disasters are changing

A closer look at billion-dollar weather events since 1980.

Wildfires. Floods. Hurricanes. If it seems like 2017 has been chock-full of weather calamities, that’s because it has. According to NOAA data, the number of billion-dollar weather disasters has a chance to tie or break the record set in 2011.

NOAA has charted such events since 1980 and offers an annual list of inflation-adjusted billion-dollar weather and climate events. The map for 2017 showcases how varied these events have been this year – both in timing, type and geography. Major events so far in 2017 have included a freeze, three tornado outbreaks, two major hail events, a drought, two instances of flooding, two rounds of severe weather, three hurricanes and a round of major wildfires.

What’s more, the frequency of these events has risen significantly since 1980. Between 1980 and 2016, the annual average for billion-dollar weather disasters (adjusted for inflation) has been 5.5. But track events from only 2012 to 2016, and that number nearly doubles to 10.6 events annually. 

Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced 15 or more billion-dollar weather disasters three times in a single calendar year – 2011, 2016 and 2017. The record of 16 such events was set in 2011.

In terms of raw cost, the year 2005 remains the runaway leader, anchored by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Following that was 2012, which fought through severe droughts in the Midwest during the summer and Hurricane Sandy in the fall.

For 2017, costs of these large-scale weather events have trended more closely with the 1980-2016 average. However, NOAA notes that current 2017 totals have not calculated costs for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which will be tabulated and included in the agency’s fourth quarter release. If estimates of around $150 billion in damages from these storms are accurate, that could push 2017’s cost totals to the second-highest since 1980.

For a cost and frequency comparison tool, plus a closer look at NOAA’s methodology and data sources, visit https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/

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