Major weather disasters appear to be occurring so frequently that they are now often referred to as the new normal. But are there actually more disasters, or are we just more attuned to their presence? This year's Billion Dollar Disaster Report from the National Climatic Data Center makes it clear that these disasters—blizzards, tornadoes, fires, droughts, and flooding—are happening more frequently than they did in the past.
Over the past 31 years, the U.S. has seen 107 weather-related disasters with overall costs exceeding $1 billion. All told, these disasters have caused over $750 billion worth of damage. But just six months into 2011, we've already seen costs of $32 billion for the eight disasters that have occurred thus far. At this point in the year, the average cost from weather damage is just $6 billion, usually from a combination of winter storms, crop losses from cold weather, spring flooding, and various other severe weather events.
The disasters this year have been varied in nature. Just to name a few: An estimated 180 tornadoes pounded the Midwest and Southeast in May; droughts and wildfires ravaged Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma; and flooding from the Mississippi River damaged agriculture and property in Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
What, if anything, can we learn from this? Mother Jones points us to another technical report on weather shifts from the NCDC, which explains that while population increase (and accompanying population shifts into high-risk areas) as well as increasing wealth may play a part in the uptick in disasters, climate change may also be partially to blame. The NCDC explains:
An increase in population and development in flood plains, along with an increase in heavy rain events in the U.S. during the past fifty years, have gradually increased the economic losses due to flooding. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. While trends in extratropical cyclones are not clear, there are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century.
And Curt Stager, an ecologist, paleoclimatologist, and Fast Company expert blogger, opined in a recent post that "the majority view of an impending wetting trend with increased carbon emissions does make sense because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and is prone to stormy convection."
The pattern of chronic nasty weather probably isn't going anywhere, then. While not every year may be as disaster-prone as 2011, the chances of seeing calm, virtually disaster-free years (like 1986, 1987, and 1988) are slim.