Decades of Disaster Data: Local and National

Décadas de Datos de Desastres: Local y Nacional

Feb 12, 2020

We dive deep into NOAA’s four decades of disaster data—showing that billion-dollar weather and climate disasters are increasing in most states, even after adjusting for inflation.

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With the dawn of the 2020s, it’s a fitting time to look back at climate data over decades past. We’ve already shown decades of warming temperatures at local, national, and global scales. This week, we highlight a related increase in billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the United States. 

Of the four decades since NOAA data began, the 2010s accounted for nearly half the total number of disasters and cost, even after adjusting for inflation. The 2010s had 119 billion-dollar disasters (double the previous decade), with total costs exceeding $800 billion. 

Many individual states show similar trends. Compared to the three previous decades, the 2010s had the most billion-dollar disasters in 34 of 52 states and territories (65%). States in the central U.S. had the largest recent spike—compared to any other decade, the 2010s had 33 more disasters in Texas, 23 more in Illinois, and 22 more in Missouri. 

Many of these disasters are getting worse with climate change, although some extreme events are easier to attribute than others. Warmer oceans are fueling the rapid intensification of hurricanes, while a warmer and wetter atmosphere intensifies their rainfall. Heavier downpours worsen inland flooding and crop damage; coastal flooding is heightened by sea level rise. And extended heat and drought can set the stage for more dangerous wildfires in the West and Alaska.

Every region faces its own climate risks, as described in the most recent National Climate Assessment. And according to our report last year with the University of Hawaii, many areas’ worst impacts could compound in the future. Climate adaptation measures can reduce those damages, whether that means restoring coastal wetlands or doing prescribed burns (when possible) in wildfire-prone areas. According to the Pew Trusts, the average dollar of pre-disaster adaptation has saved states $6 in post-disaster recovery. As with greenhouse gas emissions, today’s choices shape the severity of tomorrow’s impacts.  

METHODOLOGY: Data source: NOAA NCEI U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (1980-2019). The cost has been adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The methodology developed by NOAA NCEI, with input from economic experts and consultants to remove biases, can be found at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/overview. Additional review of the methodology can be found in Smith and Katz, 2013. For even more context, see FAQ here and analysis here

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