Costly Natural Disasters Becoming More Frequent

Wildfires in California last year caused $24 billion in damages, a new record.

Wildfires in California last year caused $24 billion in damages, a new record. Shutterstock

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In the past two years, damage caused by wildfires cost about $40 billion, roughly the same as the costs of the past 37 years combined, an analysis finds.

The frequency of billion-dollar natural disasters is increasing rapidly in the United States due mostly to the cumulative effects of climate change, according to an analysis posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The past three years (2016-2018) have been historic, with the annual average number of billion-dollar disasters being more than double the long-term average,” says Adam Smith in a blog post released this month by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information.

Since 1980, the U.S. has sustained 241 weather or climate disasters where total damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. Fourteen of those—drought, wildfires, two tropical cyclones, eight severe storms and two winter storms—occurred in 2018, the fourth-highest total events in a single year, behind only 2017 and 2011 (16 events each) and 2016 (15 events). Combined, the three most recent years have an annual average of 15 disasters, the highest on record “and well above the annual inflation-adjusted average of 6.2 events per year.”

Recent events have also ranked among the most costly. In the last three years, disaster costs have averaged more than $150 billion per year, damages that “actually represent a conservative measure of what is truly lost but cannot be fully measured given data limitations,” the analysis says. In 2018 alone, disasters—including wildfires in California and east-coast hurricanes Florence and Michael—caused $91 billion in damage, behind only 2017 ($312.7 billion), 2005 ($220.8 billion) and 2012 ($128.6 billion).

Western wildfires comprised much of that damage, most of them in California. The Camp Fire “was the costliest and deadliest wildfire in state history, destroying more than 18,500 buildings,” Smith writes. “California also endured its largest wildfire on record...which burned more than 450,000 acres.” In total, wildfires in California last year cost roughly $24 billion, a new record. Across the country, more than 8.7 million acres burned in 2018, much higher than the 10-year average of 6.8 million acres. In the past two years, damage caused by wildfires cost about $40 billion, roughly the same as the costs of the past 37 years combined.

In terms of cost, hurricanes and tropical storms have been the most damaging type of natural disaster. From 1980 to 2018, NOAA data show tropical cyclones have caused $919.7 billion in damages, with an average cost per event of $21.9 billion.

But all types of major natural disasters are becoming more frequent. From 1980 to 2018, the country experienced an annual average of about six billion-dollar events, compared to more than 12 per year from 2014 to 2018, according to NOAA’s findings.The increase is largely due to the effects of climate change, including “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,” the analysis says.

The uptick in damage is also related to “the increase in population and material wealth over the last several decades.” Many population centers and infrastructure have been placed on coasts and in river floodplains, putting more buildings and people in the path of natural disasters, the analysis concludes.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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