NOAA: A Year of USA Extremes – 12 Billion-Dollar Disasters

Dec 7, 2011, by Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., NOAA Administrator

2011 is already in the record books as a year of historic extreme events. One of those new records is the number of events totaling at least $1 Billion in damages. Today, NOAA announces in 2011, there have now been 12 extreme weather events each totaling at least $1B. The previous record was 9, set in 2008. These 12 events are depicted on the slide.

Earlier this year, we announced there were 10 to date; today we announce numbers 11th and 12th:

  • The June 18-21 tornadoes;
  • And the split of the spring/summer drought/heat waves in Texas as a separate event from the record Texas wildfires during the summer and fall.

The aggregate damage from these 12 events is approximately $52 billion.

We have not finished tallying damages caused by additional extreme events, such as the pre-Halloween winter storm that impacted the Northeast and the wind/flood damage from Tropical Storm Lee, so stay tuned for the final total # of $1B events and the aggregate damage total.

Please note that damages totaling less than a billion dollars individually are not included in this tally, even though many of them represent additional significant financial losses. And the economic losses are far from the full picture. More than 1,000 people died from these disasters. Deaths this year are almost double the yearly average (~600).

Each of these events is a huge disaster for victims who experience them; collectively, they are an unprecedented challenge for the Nation � for the safety of citizens, the bottom line for businesses, and the societal stresses they engender. Timely, accurate, and reliable weather warnings and forecasts are essential to our collective well-being, but also to the Nation�s ability to recover and prosper.

Now, I�ve emphasized how unusual this year has been, but a single year can just be an anomaly. Is that the case here? What are we documenting across years? And what might we expect in the future? Globally, according to Munich Re, the frequency of extreme events has risen steadily over the past 20 years. The number of meteorological and hydrological events each tripled in that time.

IPCC Managing Extreme Events Report (SREX)

The IPCCrecently released a special reporton the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters. In short, this reportsays that we can expect more of many of these extreme events. Here�s what the report says about 5 types of extreme events, ordered by how certain we are of the prediction:

  • �It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur throughout the 21st century on a global scale.�
  • �It is very likely that heat waves will increase in length, frequency, and/or intensity over most land areas.�
  • �It is very likely that average sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme coastal high water levels.�
  • �It is likely that the average maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase throughout the coming century, although possibly not in every ocean basin.� And, finally,
  • �It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe.�

In a separate study, a white paper from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy tells us that it�s very likely that large-scale changes in climate have influenced � and will continue to influence � many different types of extreme events, such as heavy rainfall, heat waves, and flooding. Large-scale climate change is also likely to affect small-scale phenomena like severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, but the nature and the degree of that influence are very uncertain, particularly for tornadoes.

These patterns only underscore the importance of enhancing our ability to predict and manage these events.

If you examine the extreme events on this map, you�ll see they run the gamut � from highly localized and brief events like tornadoes to regional-scale weather events like hurricanes, snow and flooding where we can provide a longer lead time to prepare � to climate-scale events like the drought in the Southern Plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana where we can watch the conditions develop over multiple weeks.

These events have different underlying physical drivers.

Therefore, to observe, monitor, predict and manage the impacts of these events requires understanding everything from the vertical wind profile at one individual location (in order to predict favorable tornadic conditions) to large-scale weather patterns which stretch around the globe (blocking patterns which can bring on heat/cold waves, drought).

This means we need diverse observations from weather balloons, radar, satellites, networks of soil moisture sensors, ocean temperature sensors, and on and on.

Understanding, predicting, and managing extreme events requires an extraordinary amount of information about the physical state of the earth system, and how it�s changing from moment to moment and decade to decade. I believe that one essential key to meeting this challenge is critical environmental intelligence. Just like �intelligence� in the security world combines data, information, analysis, modeling, and assessment, so too does �intelligence� in the environmental arena.

Dr. Lubchenco’s remarks and slides (see related links) are available here

NOAA’s Mission is: Science, Service, and Stewardship.

  • To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts,
  • To share that knowledge and information with others, and
  • To conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.