Earth & Conservation

2016 Could Set a Record for Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters

The U.S. has already had the second highest number of billion-dollar weather disasters ever, claiming a total of 68 lives and $26.9 billion in damages.

<p>REUTERS/Carlo Allegri<span></span></p>

Okay, so we haven't had any plagues of locusts yet, at least. But 2016 is shaping up as the second-worst year on record when it comes to the number of weather-related catastrophes that have caused at least $1 billion in economic losses.

"Scientists have observed trends in certain types of extreme weather events that are consistent with rising temperatures," Adam Smith, a physical scientist at NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, told Seeker. "These include heavy precipitation events, more intense droughts and heat waves. Drought and wildfire risk are increasing as temperatures and evaporation rates rise."

NOAA announced last week that the U.S. had suffered a dozen such disasters this year -- including catastrophic flooding in Louisiana and West Virginia and tornadoes in the Southeast and Plains states -- with nearly $27 billion in damage and 68 fatalities.

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And that was before Hurricane Matthew, which early reports are indicating will be the 13th, adding as much as $4 to $6 billion in losses and killing at least 33 people in the U.S. That would push 2016 to as high as $33 billion and 101 deaths.

That puts 2016 in striking distance of the 2011 record of 16 billion-dollar disasters, the most since the federal government began compiling such data in 1980.

If there's any consolation, it's that 2011-- which featured a $14.4 billion loss from Hurricane Irene and a heat wave that wilted an estimated $12.8 billion in farm crops -- set a total loss record of $70.1 billion that is highly unlikely to be matched. (That said, a single mega-disaster -- such as 2012's Hurricane Sandy, which caused $68.1 million in damages to the East Coast, could push up that total as well.)

NOAA's tabulation of weather-related disasters includes hurricanes and tornado outbreaks, flooding, snowstorms and events such as wildfires, the risk of which is exacerbated by extremely dry weather. The historical dollar amounts are adjusted for inflation.

According to NOAA, the most destructive event so far this year was the catastrophic flooding in Louisiana in August, caused by rainfall in some areas that was so extreme that statisticians say it typically occurs only once every 500 years.

In that event, more than 30,000 people were rescued from the floodwaters that damaged or destroyed over 50,000 homes, 100,000 vehicles and 20,000 businesses.

But perhaps most alarming aspect of these events is the trend line, with the number and impact of disasters steadily climbing over the past 36 years.

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