Jun 23, 2021
Climate extremes, like drought, heavy rain, and extreme heat are becoming more common—and more costly—as the climate changes.
- We’ve heard it in the headlines: More intense droughts, stronger hurricanes and storms, heavier downpours, extreme heat—climate extremes are becoming more common as the climate warms from more CO2 in the atmosphere.
- The NOAA/NCEI Climate Extremes Index (CEI) tracks extreme weather events related to temperature, drought, heavy precipitation, and tropical cyclones. Even though the CEI data goes back to 1910, five of the six most extreme years have come in the last decade (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2020) with 2020 taking the cake.
- Extreme weather events and disasters come with costs. In addition to financial costs, weather-related disasters can also have traumatizing effects on the people in the affected community.
More intense droughts, stronger hurricanes, heavier downpours, more extreme heat—these are all signs of a warming climate. Due to human-induced climate change, we are seeing more frequent and more extreme events.
- In recent months, a large portion of the West has been under a severe drought with strong links to climate change.
- Last year, the parched West was engulfed in wildfires. In California alone, officials estimated that the fires burned about 4 million acres of land.
- In the last four decades, the percentage of hurricanes reaching Category 3, both globally and in the Atlantic, has increased.
Taking Climate to the Extreme: Our emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases continues to shift the planet to warmer and more dangerous conditions that humans (and the ecosystems we depend on) aren’t used to. As a result of the added heat, we are seeing:
- Rising temperatures: Adding heat to a system will only make it hotter, and that's exactly what is happening. 2020 was the one of the two warmest years on record globally, and it was ranked the fifth-warmest year here in the U.S.
- Wet gets wetter; dry gets drier: As the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more water, meaning more intense evaporation (drought) and heavier precipitation (flooding).
- Stronger Storms: A combination of warmer air and water temperatures supercharge the water cycle, allowing hurricanes to become stronger and cause more damage once onshore.
A look at the numbers: The NOAA/NCEI Climate Extremes Index (CEI) tracks extreme weather events by combining six indicators related to temperature, drought, precipitation events, and tropical cyclone activity. Scientists determine a percentage of the contiguous U.S. that is above or below these normal climate conditions to calculate the extremes.
- 2020 was the highest CEI on record with a percentage of 44.63%.
- Even though the CEI data goes back to 1910, five of the top six percentages occurred in the last decade (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2020).
Extreme weather comes with a big cost: Extreme weather of all kinds—severe local storms, tropical cyclones, freezes, winter storms, wildfires, drought, heatwaves, flooding—can cause a lot of physical damage with a big price tag. These disasters can also place strain on communities, mentally and socially.
- Last year, the U.S. experienced 22 billion-dollar disasters, the highest number on record, that cost a whopping $95 billion dollars in total.
- Climate extremes are also costly in human lives. In the last 5 years (2016-2020), there have been 3,969 deaths linked to billion-dollar disasters.
- Weather-related disasters can literally rip away the livelihoods and sense of normalcy of an entire community in minutes. People who experience these disasters can develop mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vulnerable populations, like children, the elderly, the homeless, first responders, and people in low income communities, are at a higher risk of distress.
POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES
What is your region's Climate Extreme Index? Did your state experience a billion-dollar disaster last year?
To dig further into each region’s (South, West, North, etc.) Climate Extremes Index, explore NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index graph and regional overview tabs. You can find summary statistics for your state’s billion dollar disasters since 1980 here. You can also find state-level graphics for the number of billion-dollar disaster events by decade.
Tools for reporting on extreme weather events and disasters near you:
A number of journalism schools and organizations provide advice for responsibly reporting on disasters, including focusing on safety, data, and cultural sensitivity. You can find preparedness materials for hurricanes, flooding, and other health emergencies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In addition, you can uncover more information about extreme weather events through SciLine’s multiple fact sheets.
What is climate change emergency management and what does it look like in your state?
Emergency management can help reduce risk in vulnerable communities against the impacts of climate change. FEMA has a dedicated page with tools, data, and resources to learn more. For state specific emergency management information, search your state here on the USA.gov site.
Check out Solutions Journalism to read what your peers are reporting about climate extremes, nearby and around the world:
Solutions Journalism Network is a non-profit organization that trains and supports journalists to report on how people are responding to the world’s largest social issues through rigorous evidence-based reporting. Use the Solutions Story Tracker to discover the different solutions stories related to extreme weather.
To learn more about climate extremes and their impact on communities, you can also find your local Emergency Management Agency through the FEMA website, as well as Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) in your area. You can also find a local health professional or group through the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.
The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have expertise on climate extremes in your area. In addition, the American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all 50 state climatologists.
- Karin Gleason, Ph.D.
Meteorologist - Monitoring Section
NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), Center for Weather and Climate (CWC)
- Samantha Montano, Ph.D.
Emergency Management, Massachusetts Maritime Academy
- Mona Sarfaty, MD MPH FAAFP
Executive Director, Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health
Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University
The Climate Extremes Index has been developed and calculated by NOAA/NCEI.
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