A series of hurricanes, wildfires, and other severe weather-related events have made 2017 the costliest year on record for natural disasters.
The combination of property damage and spending on aid and relief cost the US a total of $306 billion in 2017. There were 16 weather events that each caused over $1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Last year shattered the previous cost record, which was set in 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dennis, and Wilma caused $214 billion in damage (adjusted for inflation).
Hurricane Harvey, which caused widespread flooding in Houston in August, was the single most expensive storm in 2017, causing $125 billion in damage, according to NOAA. Harvey was followed by Hurricane Maria, which leveled Puerto Rico in September and led to an ongoing crisis from which the island is still recovering. That storm caused $90 billion in damage. And Hurricane Irma, which lashed Florida in September, was the third-costliest disaster in 2017 with $50 billion damage, according to NOAA.
The wildfires in northern and southern California, combined with fires in Montana and Colorado, caused $18 billion in damage. The rest of the costly disasters in 2017 are a mix of tornadoes, floods, and severe thunderstorms.
More frequent, severe natural disasters and rising costs associated with recovery and relief are part of a larger trend, since climate change makes weather more erratic and extreme. According to a recent study in Nature, the planet may get 15% hotter by the end of the century than scientists’ highest projections, which means extreme weather and costly disasters are likely to get much worse.
The hurricane season in 2017 was considered “extremely active,” according to the National Hurricane Center, with September breaking the record for the number of hurricane days in one month. And 14 of the 20 largest wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2000 — with the Thomas Fire, which burned over 280,000 acres in Ventura County in December, now the largest fire in the state’s history.
The Government Accountability Office projects that the US government’s recurring annual costs due to climate change — such as wildfire suppression — could increase by up to $35 billion per year by 2050. Whereas there were 16 weather events in the US that cost $1 billion this year, the entire decade of the 1980s only saw 21 that crossed that billion-dollar mark.