The United States has experienced 10 extreme weather events so far this year that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, according to new figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This makes 2020 the sixth consecutive year with at least 10 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, a new record, NOAA officials said. The latest assessment demonstrates the extensive economic and societal impact of — and the country’s vulnerability to — extreme weather events, which in some cases are expected to become either more frequent or more intense because of climate change.
The busy first half of 2020 also puts it on pace to rival 2017, which had 16 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, and holds the record for the most such events in a year. According to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, 2020 is currently tied with 2011 and 2016 for the most billion-dollar disasters in the first six months of the year.
All of 2020’s billion-dollar disasters through the end of June were due to severe storms, which NOAA said affected more than 30 states. The most destructive so far was the outbreak of more than 140 tornadoes from Texas to Maryland on April 12 and 13 that resulted in an estimated $3 billion in damages and caused 35 deaths.
Hail storms and severe weather across Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri on April 7 and 8 resulted in an estimated $2.6 billion in damages but no fatalities, according to NOAA. And rounding out the top three was an outbreak of severe weather across several Midwest and Ohio Valley states in late March, where high winds, hail and two dozen reported tornadoes led to an estimated $2.4 billion in losses.
So far, the most destructive weather and climate events of the first half of 2020 have caused a total of 80 deaths and nearly $18 billion in damages.
NOAA has tracked the economic and societal impact of weather and climate events in the U.S. since 1980. Over those four decades, there have been 273 disasters where overall damages were at least $1 billion, with the total cost exceeding $1.79 trillion.
And the economic risk will likely remain high in the future, as global warming causes more widespread drought, more severe wildfires and fuels more intense storms and hurricanes.
Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at the National Centers for Environmental Information, said it’s uncommon that 2020’s billion-dollar disasters to date are all from severe storms, but he added that these types of weather events tend to cluster at certain times of the year.
“It is a bit unusual that we did not have any billion-dollar winter storm or flooding events during the first half of the year,” Smith said in an email. “However, the months March to June are when the U.S. experiences the majority of the severe storm events (tornadoes, hail and high wind damage) just like we have so far in 2020.”
The wildfire season in the western U.S. and the Atlantic hurricane season are about to ramp up in the coming months. NOAA previously predicted that 2020 would see a busier-than-normal hurricane season. The agency’s projections included a 70 percent chance of 13 to 19 named storms with winds of 39 miles per hour or higher. Of those, six to 10 could become hurricanes, including three to six “major” hurricanes that reach Category 3 or higher.
“We have had a preview of the hurricane potential given the ongoing record number of named storms so early in the 2020 hurricane season,” Smith said.
And though the first half of 2020 is at near-record pace for billion-dollar disasters in the country, Smith said he hopes the next six months are more subdued.
“We hope the fall months of 2020 do not mirror the 2017 and 2018 hurricane and western wildfire seasons,” he said. “During 2017 and 2018 the U.S. experienced historically damaging and costly hurricane and wildfire seasons.”