U.S. Breaks Record for Billion-Dollar Climate Disasters in 2020

A total of 22 disasters caused $95 billion in total damage, reflecting climate change’s growing cost

Hurricane Laura
Category-4 Hurricane Laura hit Cameron, Louisiana on August 27, 2020 with winds up to 150 mph and storm surge in excess of 15 feet. The storm caused costly destruction along the coast and inland to the city of Lake Charles and was one of seven storms that caused more than $1 billion in damages. NOAA GOES-East image / NOAA satellite team

In a year defined by the coronavirus, the United States was also beset by a record number of major natural disasters, many amplified by climate change. A new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) identifies 22 disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damages across America, beating the previous record by six incidents, reports Christopher Flavelle for the New York Times.

Wildfires, hurricanes and floods in 2020 accumulated $95 billion in damages, the third highest total ever, and accounted for 262 deaths. These grim tallies track the increasingly destructive reality of climate change on our planet, reports Thomas Frank for E&E News. Per the Times, 2020 was also one of the warmest years on record, a trend driven by decades of human activities flooding Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases.

West Coast Fires 2020
A cloud of smoke from wildfires along the U.S. West Coast see billowing from space on September 10, 2020. European Space Agency satellite image using Copernicus Sentinel data

In a NOAA statement, officials explain climate change is “increasing [the] frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters—most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states. Sea level rise is worsening hurricane storm surge flooding.”

However, the country's increasing population and wealth have also played important roles in the rising costs of disasters. “Much of the growth has taken place in vulnerable areas like coasts and river floodplains,” NOAA officials write. “Vulnerability is especially high where building codes are insufficient for reducing damage from extreme events.”

These nearly two-dozen disasters spanned the U.S., from the wildfires in the West, to the hurricanes and tropical storms that battered the east coast.

A record-setting 12 named storms ravaged the gulf and eastern coastlines of the country, with seven of those topping $1 billion in damages. Meanwhile, California saw five of the six biggest fires in state history, with fires charring 10.3 million acres across the whole of the American West, reports Oliver Milman for the Guardian.

“The record number of climate change-exacerbated weather disasters this year drives home the fact that, as I like to say, the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, tells the Guardian.

“We’re seeing them play out in real time. Hopefully this is the year where we finally see the sort of action, by the US and the rest of the world, that is necessary to prevent things from getting worse.”

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