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.



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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