Regular Earther readers will know there was no shortage of apocalyptic weather disasters plaguing the U.S. last year, from pipe-bursting freezes in Texas to road warping heat in the Pacific Northwest to an endless parade of wildfires mixed in for good measure. Now, a new report from the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) provides some more detail on the economic and human costs associated with the tragic mess that is the changing climate.
The agency chronicled 20 weather events in the report, released Monday, that collectively cost the U.S. economy at least $145 billion dollars. Each of those climate or weather events individually led to losses of at least $1 billion. The report also estimates last year’s extreme weather events led to the deaths of 688 across the U.S., showing that we’re not going to be able to adapt our way out of the increasingly violent climate.
Tropical storms had by far the largest economic impact in 2021, causing $78.5 billion in damage. Of that, $74 billion along came from Hurricane Ida, with the storm leaving a trail of destruction from Louisiana to New York.
Winter storms followed their tropical counterparts, causing $24 billion in damage. Severe storms and wildfires cost the country $20.4 billion and $10.6 billion respectively. The deadliest weather event of 2021 was the drought and series of heat waves that rippled across the West, killing 229 over the course of the year. (Though, it should be noted, other analyses have pegged the death toll of the Pacific Northwest heat wave alone as much higher. Ditto for the Texas cold snap.)
Those figures are made even worse when put in context with previous years. The 20 weather events costing more than $1 billion in 2021 far eclipsed the average of roughly seven similar weather events annually between 1980 and 2021. Of the 310 weather events topping $1 billion in damage recorded over the past 41 years, 2021 alone accounted for over 15% of them.
In just the past five years, weather and climate disasters cost the U.S. economy $742.1 billion and left some 4,519 people dead. The staggering toll reflects a few trends. One is an increasingly violent climate where heat waves are more intense, hurricanes can do more damage, and wildfires are more voracious due to burning fossil fuels.
“Climate change is also playing a role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” the authors noted, “most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states.”
The other factor driving the damage tally is people increasingly living in areas prone to disasters. The population in coastal counties and in areas where the woods meet towns known as the wildland-urban interface has ballooned. That combination has put people and infrastructure right in the climate bullseye—and all but ensured losses will continue to skyrocket as climate change worsens.