NOAA: 2012’s U.S. Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Events ‘Impressive’

By Don Jergler | January 4, 2013

Last year may not have measured up to 2011 in terms total damages or havoc wreaked, but the nearly dozen recorded billion-dollar weather related events still ranks as impressive.

That’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which recently issued an annual report on extreme weather events.

“2012 was an impressive year with 11 recorded billion-dollar events,” said Adam Smith, an applied climatologist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Extreme weather events in 2013 may look much the same as this year with a few differences. The weather is difficult to predict so far out, but if the weak El Niño forecast for next year holds, it brings with it the promise of continued drought in the Great Plains and nasty winter weather on the East Coast.

A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on extreme weather and climate events in the U.S. for 2012 above $1 billion in losses counts nearly 11 events that cost 349 lives.

The tally included seven severe weather/tornado events, two tropical storm/hurricane events and the yearlong drought and associated wildfires.

Economic losses for two events, Superstorm Sandy and the yearlong drought in the U.S. interior, are the big drivers this year in terms of costs and are still being calculated. It will take months to develop a final estimate for each, according to NOAA.

Given how big these events are likely to be, NOAA estimates that the year will surpass 2011 in terms of aggregate costs for U.S. annual billion-dollar disasters, even with fewer number of billion-dollar disasters.

The most significant losses of life during the 11 events occurred during Sandy, which resulted in 131 deaths. Congress on Friday approved $9.7 billion in initial relief for victims of Sandy. Senate quickly passed the measure by voice vote after the House of Representatives voted early in the day 354-67 to increase the borrowing authority of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) by $9.7 billion.

The NFIP has about 114,000 pending claims in the Northeast from Sandy and is on track to run out of funds Jan. 7 unless it is allowed to borrow additional funds, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the flood program.

The House is scheduled to take up supplemental disaster aid worth $51 billion for Sandy victims on Jan. 15.

The summer-long heat wave and associated drought caused at least 123 direct deaths, however an estimate of the excess mortality due to heat stress is still unknown, according to the NOAA report.

Still 2012 was no 2011 in terms of weather damage. The 14 events in 2011 set a record exceeding the previous record of nine billion-dollar events set in 2008. Smith said that while 2012 fell short of its predecessor year, in terms of hail and wind 2012 saw greater damages.

“In 2012, there were more billion-dollar weather events driven by widespread hail and straight-line wind damage from thunderstorms,” Smith said. “There were fewer classic tornado outbreaks in 2012 compared to a very active 2011. In 2011, we saw a historic year of billion-dollar weather disasters that had a bit of everything.”

The quietest year for large weather-related catastrophes was in 1987, when there were zero U.S. billion-dollar events, according to Smith.

Unusual weather patterns over the last two years yielded some warm temperatures for the nation, especially during the winter. The 2011-2012 winter season was the third warmest on record for U.S., according to NOAA.

“This was partially due to an unusual jet stream pattern which kept cold Arctic air trapped north of the U.S.-Canadian border,” Smith said. “This weather pattern was associated with a positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation – a pressure pattern in the North Atlantic Ocean which dictates upper level air patterns over the United States.”

The warm spring caused an early start to the U.S. growing season and increased evaporation demand much sooner, according to Smith.

“This was the foundation for the large and intense drought which affected nearly two-thirds of the nation during the summer,” he said. “When drought conditions are present during summer, it tends to drive daytime temperatures higher than they would be with more moist soils. The summer season consisted of the warmest July, and subsequently warmest month, on record for the nation. The summer as a whole was the second warmest on record.”

Additionally, partly due to the jet stream being farther to the north on average during the primary tornado-producing months, including April, May and June, there were fewer tornadoes. Those that did form tended to be less intense, at EF-3 or less, Smith said.

The eleven weather-related events that comprise 2012’s billion-dollar club include:

Southeast/Ohio Valley Tornadoes — March 2–3

Texas Tornadoes — April 2–3

Great Plains Tornadoes — April 13–14

Midwest/Ohio Valley Severe Weather — April 28–May 1

Southern Plains/Midwest/Northeast Severe Weather — May 25–30

Rockies/Southwest Severe Weather — June 6–12

Plains/East/Northeast Severe Weather (“Derecho”) — June 29–July 2

Hurricane Isaac — August 26–31

Western Wildfires — Summer–Fall,

Hurricane Sandy — October 29–31

U.S. Drought/Heatwave — throughout

The greatest annual loss to date was 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma and Dennis struck Florida and the Gulf Coast states. Costs exceeded $187 billion when adjusted to 2012 dollars.

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