Last year was downright biblical when it came to weather and climate disasters — particularly in the United States

By Tom Yulsman | January 15, 2018 7:09 pm

North America on Aug. 25, 2017, as seen by the GOES-16 weather satellite. Hurricane Harvey is seen along the Texas Gulf Coast toward the bottom middle of the image. And above the Great Lakes, smoke from wildfires is drifting across a large swath of Canada. (Source: RAMMB/SLIDER)

I’m a bit late to this story, but it’s significant enough that I didn’t want to let it pass by without posting something about it. The long and short of it is this: 2017 truly was a horrific year for weather and climate disasters, both in the United States and the world as a whole.

Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, fires and freezes in the United States claimed at least 362 lives and injured many more in 2017. In total, the nation experienced 16 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion, tying 2011 for most in a single year, according to an analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Total costs from these disasters amounted to $306 billion. That set a new U.S. annual record, beating out 2005, the year of hurricanes Katrina, Wilma and Rita.

Since 1980, the United States has sustained 219 weather and climate disasters with costs reaching or exceeding $1 billion each. Collectively, these 219 events have cost the country more $1.5 trillion.

Globally, losses from weather and climate disasters also set a new record in 2017, according to Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurance companies. Insured losses were almost three times higher than the average of $49 billion. The U.S. share of global losses in 2017 was particularly high: half of the global total, as compared to the long-term average of 32 percent.

“For me, a key point is that some of the catastrophic events, such as the series of three extremely damaging hurricanes, or the very severe flooding in South Asia after extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains, are giving us a foretaste of what is to come,” says Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re Board member responsible for global reinsurance business. “Because even though individual events cannot be directly traced to climate change, our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often in future.”

According to NOAA’s analysis, some of the more noteworthy weather and climate disasters in the United States included . . .

The billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that occurred in 2017. (Source: NOAA NCEI)

Billion-dollar weather and climate disasters of 2017. (Source: NOAA NCEI)

. . . the western wildfire season, with total costs of $18 billion, tripling the previous U.S. annual wildfire cost record. Hurricane Harvey had total costs of $125 billion, second only to Hurricane Katrina in the 38-year period of record for billion-dollar disasters. Hurricanes Maria and Irma had total costs of $90 billion and $50 billion, respectively. Hurricane Maria now ranks as the third costliest weather and climate disaster on record for the nation and Irma ranks as the fifth costliest.

If you’re wondering about about the meaning of “weather and climate disasters,” I did too. So I asked Derek “Deke” Arndt, head of the Monitoring Branch of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Here is his response:

We include weather and climate disasters together, because some of the events can be sufficiently long term to be called climate; by their multi-month or seasonal nature, they fit into the climate variability timescale.

Drought, in particular, can occur over climate timescales, and also seasonal recurring wildfire. Even weather events like hurricanes have elements of longer-term climate change in their impact. Sea level rise that enhances storm surge is a good example of this.

NOAA’s analysis also found that 2017 in the United States was the third warmest year in 123 years of record-keeping. That means that the five warmest years on record for the country all have occurred since 2006. And for the third consecutive year, every state across the contiguous United States and Alaska experienced above-average annual temperatures.

  • Mike

    Global warming or heating up for fire to be cast upon it? Global warming says humanity is in control. We all along for the ride on a big, blue ball though the infinity of space. Where it goes, we go. Is humanity really in control? Not an influence of varying degrees of measure, but really in absolute control?

  • OWilson

    There’s no hard science linking weather events to man made global warming. Weather related costs will continue to rise as a function of population development and prosperity.

    Hurricanes that used to just deleaf palm trees, and move sand beaches around. They now toss multimillion dollar yachts ashore, and de-stabalize huge buildings.

    As you say, the U.S. acounts for half of the world’s weather related costs.

    A hurricane hitting Miami, will obviously cause more physical damage, than if it hits a fishing village in the third world.

    The good news is that deaths from weather events are down some 92%, in the last 50 years or so, with the biggest reduction in the U.S., while the material cost of weather related events is rising!

    The world is getting richer. As a percentage of GDP, the damage costs are relatively stable.

  • John the Baptist The 2nd

    My associate and I have called torments on this earth, which are to wit, (1) record disasters, (2) unprecedented calamities, (3) mind-numbing stupidity of leaders and select individuals. They will increase and intensify with time. Believe it or don’t. Like them or not.

  • Mike Richardson

    I was hoping this fact would get a little more attention — NOAA’s record keeping doesn’t just include satellite findings (which may actually be less accurate than ground based measurements), but an accounting of just how these extreme weather events are impacting the U.S., from lives disrupted to monetary losses on our economy. Anecdotally, we in southeast Louisiana have seen two major snowfalls in the past 10 years ( in my childhood we never had accumulation beyond one inch), and may be about to get out second snowfall since early December. Though some may not be the first thing folks think of as a result of global warming, but when you warming poles cause shifts in the jet stream, you can get some in areas that don’t usually get it.

    In the Southern hemisphere, though, we had last week reports of bats dropping from the trees due to temperatures of 116 degrees in Australia.

    Time magazine is reporting

  • Walter Goddard

    The world doesn’t want to consider how sin against God and Man is the biggest factor in extreme weather.. The earth wobbles to and fro.. awaiting the ‘sons’ of God..

    Let’s take a look at how poor forestry/land/farm stewardship, and legislation to prevent thinning or any type of harvesting, contributed to the wild fires. I believe every thing has a time and a season. Personally, I adhere to Selective Silvics in forest management.

    There is some forestry that requires clear cutting to regenerate seedlings in an even aged stand (even fire), but the financial burdens of logging companies make it a money game, so that large tracts are clear cut; instead of small pockets woven through out the stand, as needed to be done properly :(

    If you want to see Selective Silviculture and proper forest management in operation than look to the Goodman legacy…. In Goodman, Wisconsin and the lumber mill and stewardship he taught and lived out…

    There have been reports of high numbers of deer, elk, etc.. grazing and foraging for food in the Rockies; causing severe damage to the Aspen stands and other trees..

    Let’s also take a look at the water rationing on the west coast as a contribution to dryer air/brush/grass/fuel and the wild fires season last year… being careful not accuse

    I don’t hear any reports about record snowfalls in the skiing resorts for the past 2 years in any of these climate change camps either???

    Did you know that the ski resorts across the Rocky Mountains 2016/17, reported snow packs at 180% of normal.. It melted and ended most of the drought and water rationing in California..

    It seems that the social/media/schools/colleges/universities are promoting agendas more than science and math these days!
    ..teaching how to use instruments and tech to accuse and blame men for the weather changes, instead of taking responsibility for the laws they create to hug trees, alienate people, and outlaw oil and gas..

    What’s worse for the environment? Is it all of the electrical components, (causing cancer?), with the extra batteries and their disposal from electric cars vs. fossil fueled cars!

  • Walter Goddard

    When it comes to extreme or catastrophic weather, remember the flood sent by the Lord, and the rainbow as His promise not to destroy man or the earth with a flood again.. Every civilization on earth has the same fossil record of a worldwide flood and sediment trails when the floods were removed.. not even the atheists can argue with it.

    All of the flesh of the earth along with the foliage, were destroyed by the great flood..
    From all of this, we received the oil and gas deposits men have called fossil fuels…



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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