Jan 10, 2022 - Energy & Environment

U.S. had its second-highest total of billion dollar climate disasters in 2021

Image of a house burning during a wildfire in Colorado.
A home burns in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville, Colo., on Dec. 30, 2021. Photo: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Last year featured the second-highest number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters on record in the contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Why it matters: The extreme events of 2021 affected the public health of millions of Americans, destroyed homes and upended livelihoods, and demonstrated the escalating human and financial costs of global warming.

The big picture: During 2021, the contiguous U.S. average temperature was 2.5°F above the 20th century average, which ranked in the top 5 warmest years in the 127 years of record-keeping, NOAA found.

  • The Lower 48 states also had its warmest December on record, NOAA found, with an average temperature that was a staggering 6.7°F above average, beating the previous record in December 2015.
  • The six warmest years have all occurred since 2012. Maine and New Hampshire had their second-warmest year on record, while another 19 states had a top-5 warmest year, the agency stated.
  • Extreme weather events, supercharged by climate change, were relentless, with the tally on the billion-dollar disaster list added to all the way to Dec. 30.
  • A total of 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters killed at least 688 people last year. This was the most disaster-related deaths for this region since the tornado-filled year of 2011.

Details: The 20 separate billion-dollar disasters rank 2021 in second place for the highest number of disasters seen in a single year, behind 2020, which had 22 such events. The cost of these disasters last year was higher than in the 2020 record year, in addition to the death toll.

  • The list of billion-dollar events in 2021 includes: The Texas deep freeze, Western wildfires (including the Colorado grassfire on Dec. 30), the Pacific Northwest heat wave, four landfalling tropical storms and hurricanes, and 8 severe weather events.
  • Notably, the severe weather events included the unusual December derecho in the Midwest, which set a record for the highest number of hurricane-force wind reports reported in a single day.

Context: Long-term trends in billion-dollar disasters show an increase over time, which is related in part to climate change-related trends in extreme events. But global warming is unlikely to be causing the entire uptick. Instead, a growing, sprawling population is also to blame for putting more homes and businesses in harms way.

  • Since NOAA's billion-dollar event database began 42 years ago, the country has seen about $2 trillion in damages, with more than 15,000 fatalities. The 2010s brought costs of $858.4 billion, compared to just $187.2 billion during the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation.
  • According to NOAA, 2021 is the seventh straight year to feature 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events.
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