The toll extreme weather took in the U.S. during 2022, by the numbers
‘There’s no reason to expect that the trends will reverse,’ says one federal scientist who tracks costly weather disasters.
By Brady Dennis, Washington Post
Storms fueled crippling floods in Missouri and Kentucky. A drought starved Lake Mead, Lake Powell, and much of the American West, endangering water supplies and creating conditions for devastating wildfires.
A deadly collection of 83 tornadoes tore across the South. Golf-ball-size hail battered swaths of Minnesota and Wisconsin, damaging homes, vehicles, and businesses. Unprecedented flooding inundated Yellowstone National Park. The Christmas week winter storm for the ages blasted much of the nation with biting cold, and blizzard conditions pummeled western New York, leaving more than two dozen people dead.
And the catastrophe that was Hurricane Ian steamrolled parts of Florida and lumbered up the East Coast this fall, leaving tens of billions of dollars of damage in its wake and killing more than 125 people.
While weather disasters strike the United States every year, 2022 brought the latest reminder that extreme events, fueled in part by the warming planet, are growing more intense and costly — both at home and abroad.
Here are some numbers that help describe the toll such calamities inflicted on the United States over the past year and what threats probably lie ahead:
The number of “billion-dollar disaster” events as of mid-December, according to federal officials. While that number is mercifully lower than the record years of 2020 and 2021 — which saw 22 and 20 such disasters, respectively — it still represents a high amount of suffering.
Over the past four decades, the United States has experienced an average of 7.7 billion disasters annually. But since 2017, the average has jumped to nearly 18 each year.
More frequent disasters mean less time to prepare for each one. An analysis by the research nonprofit Climate Central found that from 2017 to 2021, the nation experienced a billion-dollar disaster every 18 days on average, compared with 82 days between such events on average in the 1980s.
“The lessons we are learning from these more frequent, more costly extreme weather events should be apparent now across many regions,” said Adam Smith, an economist, and scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “There’s no reason to expect that the trends will reverse or flat line.”
The number of acres burned by wildfire as of Dec. 23, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).
“Twenty years ago, this would have been considered an above-normal season,” said Jim Wallman, an NIFC meteorologist. But what is normal is changing. “This is like what would be considered an average season right now.”
Wallman said that in the decade preceding 2005, wildfires burned an average of 6.3 million acres each year. By 2021, that 10-year annual average had risen to more than 7 million acres — a more than 10 percent increase.
Alaska saw the largest amount of scorched land by far during 2022, at more than 3 million acres. New Mexico experienced record wildfires this spring, and states such as Texas, Oregon and Idaho saw hundreds of thousands of acres burned, with many of those blazes human-caused.
A new analysis this year revealed that 1 in 6 Americans now live in an area with significant wildfire risk. That’s nearly 80 million properties in the United States that face a real threat of exposure. In a hotter, drier world, scientists expect those risks to continue to intensify.
Two decades ago, if a fire burned 10,000 acres in a day, that was startling, Wallman said. “Now, when conditions are right, we are seeing that more frequently,” he said.
Some timber fires in recent years have burned 50,000 or more acres in a day. A rare few, such as the Dixie Fire in California last year, surpassed 100,000 acres in a day.
The number of inches of rainfall that fell during a single day this summer in St. Louis, easily eclipsing the record of about 7 inches set in August 1915, when remnants of a hurricane passed through the area.
The historic deluge — an event with less than a 1-in-1,000 chance of occurring in a given year — dropped startling amounts of rain on St. Louis and surrounding areas. Some areas northwest of the city saw rainfall totals up to a foot. Overwhelmed storm water drains and sewage systems overflowed and backed up into houses. Dozens of rescues took place amid the flash flooding.
“What happened was way more than the system — any system — can handle,” Sean Hadley, spokesman for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, told The Washington Post at the time.
That disaster marked just one episode in a summer full of intense precipitation. From Eastern Kentucky to inland Florida, from Chicago to Wisconsin, massive rain events fueled the sort of flooding that is becoming more common and is battering outdated and outmatched infrastructure.
Scientists say climate change is helping to fuel the increased frequency and intensity of the extreme rainfall events, in part because a warmer atmosphere can hold significantly more moisture. During a five-week span in July and August, five 1,000-year rain events occurred across the county.
The problem is playing out around the globe, deepening catastrophes such as the monumental flooding in Pakistan this year that displaced millions of people. In the United States, extreme precipitation in many communities has laid bare how government flood insurance maps often fail to reflect the risks that Americans actually face.
The degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average in the contiguous United States over the meteorological summer, measured from June 1 through Aug. 31. That made 2022 the third-hottest U.S. summer on record in the past 128 years, according to NOAA.
The heat that scorched and baked the country this summer smashed thousands of temperature records along the way. More than 7,000, in fact, according to a Post analysis of NOAA data. More than 400 monthly records and 27 all-time records also fell.
A persistent drought that has covered more than 40 percent of the continental United States for nearly two years has put pressure on livestock herds across the Great Plains and stressed water supplies across the West.
Outdoor workers have faced growing health risks from the heat, and officials have been forced to limit activities from fireworks to camp fires. Extreme weather has threatened business owners in towns around national parks, impacted air quality, and raised nighttime temperatures to dangerous levels.
The worsening summer swelter is hardly a U.S. problem. Europe experienced its hottest summer on record in 2022. And scientists published a sprawling global assessment that warned warming will continue unless humans drastically cut back on greenhouse gas emissions that heat the planet.
The number of years since the American West has experienced such a prolonged, profound drought, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Researchers found that the decades-long drought that has gripped the West since 2000, fueled in part by the warming of the planet, marks the driest 22-year period since at least 800 A.D.
The crisis has depleted groundwater, melted annual snowpack, and dried out critical lakes. It has led officials to fear for a “complete doomsday scenario” along the parched Colorado River, which serves roughly 1 in 10 Americans.
At a recent gathering in Las Vegas, water managers said unprecedented shortages soon could descend upon cities and farms throughout the West. Officials warned that long-standing rules about how water is divvied up along the river will have to change, as years of overconsumption collide with the stark realities of climate change.
Even as scientists and federal officials are still tallying its toll, Hurricane Ian seems destined to become the third-most destructive storm on record, behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
The cost of those disasters, adjusted for inflation, stand at roughly $186 billion and $149 billion, respectively. Ian is likely to eclipse the $100 billion mark as well.
Ian was among the strongest hurricanes to make landfall when it barreled into Florida’s southwest coast in late September, as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 150 mph. It obliterated coastal communities and caused massive inland flooding as it ambled across the state.
“Ian really delivered the trifecta of impacts to southern and central Florida — high winds, storm surge, and then flooding well inland,” NOAA’s Smith said.
Part of the reason that Ian was so destructive was the fact that huge amounts of people, homes, and businesses lay in its path. Some of those same spots were hit again in November by Hurricane Nicole, a less powerful but still harmful storm that has not yet been deemed a billion-dollar disaster.
The United States, Smith said, has faced a Category 4 or 5 storm making landfall repeatedly in recent years.
“It’s a bad trend,” he said. “It shows our vulnerability is high, our exposure is high, and the costs will continue to climb if we don’t better seek to mitigate future damages.”
The number of consecutive years in which the United States experienced 10 or more billion-dollar, weather-related disasters.
What has become more common, and even expected, wasn’t always the case. Dating back to 1980, government figures show 13 years that included a double-digit number of such disasters, when adjusted for inflation. Of those, 11 have come since 2011.
Researchers and public officials who have studied the changes say multiple factors are driving the troubling trend, including the fact that development has continued in disaster-prone areas and that Americans have continued to flock toward coastal communities.
But, Smith told The Post this year: “Climate change is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
Deaths that have officially been attributed to climate- and weather-related disasters so far in 2022, and the late-year winter storm that pummeled Buffalo and other parts of the nation will add dozens of deaths to the final total.
Floods and fires, storms, and heat waves take more than just an economic toll, of course. They destroy wildlife and natural landscapes. They upend livelihoods. They leave people homeless. And they claim lives.
Hurricane Ian was the most deadly catastrophe, killing at least 131 people as it leveled homes and flooded communities across Florida, according to government figures.
Scores of other Americans have died in the floods that devastated eastern Kentucky, wildfires that ravaged parts of California, and heat waves that swept across large swaths of the country.
Customers without power at the peak of the devastating and deadly Arctic blast that swept across much of the United States in the waning days of 2022.
Our colleagues at the Capital Weather Gang this week tallied some of the most significant figures associated with the storm that brought a frigid end to an otherwise historically warm year.
More than 20,000 flights have been canceled in recent days, during one of the most hectic travel periods of the year, according to the site FlightAware. Hundreds of drivers found themselves stranded on highways and back roads. Nearly a dozen states, from Montana to New York, saw blizzard warnings during the storms, and more than half the U.S. population was under either a wind chill warning or wind chill advisory from Dec. 21 to 25.
More than 4 feet of snow fell in places in western New York, and at least 39 people in the Buffalo area have died, officials said Wednesday. Rescuers raced to free people trapped in cars; nursing homes and shelters risked running out of food. The National Guard was going door-to-door to check on residents in some Buffalo neighborhoods who had lost power for prolonged periods.
“It’s a horrible storm with too many deaths,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said at a Wednesday news conference. “It’s heartbreaking, it’s a gut punch.”
When officials tally the storm’s destructive and widespread toll, it is likely to become the year’s final billion-dollar disaster.
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