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2020 Expected To Break Record For Natural Disaster Spending

A map showing U.S. billion-dollar weather and climate disasters.
NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information
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A map from NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information shows billion dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. in 2020.

The United States is set to break a record in 2020 for money spent on disasters, and climate change is exacerbating these costly natural events.

The U.S. has spent more money cleaning up after hurricanes and wildfires this year than ever before.

Calculations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the country will have experienced about 20 individual billion dollar disasters by the end of the year, breaking the current annual record of 16.

The first nine months of this year alone tied that record. 2020 is also the sixth consecutive year in which 10 or more billion dollar weather and climate disaster events have impacted the country, according to NOAA.

During a recent virtual panel discussion hosted by the nonprofit Climate Central, Adam Smith, a climatologist with NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said this year will shatter the previous annual record of 16 in 2011 and 2017.

“You can see that indeed there is both an increase in the frequency and the cost of these events,” said Smith. “The trends are all going the wrong way.”

1980-2020 Year-To-Date U.S. Billion-Dollar Disaster Event Frequency
NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information

Natural disaster costs have been above $100 billion per year on average over the last five years, Smith said, and will increase even further by the end-of-year analysis.

NOAA is still tallying the final numbers and is expected to release them January 7, 2021.

Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central, simply used the word "bad" to describe 2020.

"I don't think this really comes as a surprise to anyone that's been paying attention to the biggest issues we've had from environmental disasters, whether you want to call those weather or climate-related," he said.

Sublette said we are more vulnerable to natural disasters than we have been in the past.

“Whether it's us moving to more flood-prone areas, whether it's moving to the coasts, whether it's rising sea level on top of people moving to the coast, heavier rain into floodplains where people have also moved, places that are flooding that hadn't before,” he said.

Climate change, among other factors, plays a role in fueling these major disasters.

"One of the things that we really try to remind people is that it's not one thing. It's not the other thing. It is a myriad of things. It's a threat multiplier,” said Sublette. “Climate change takes the things that we're already vulnerable to, it makes them worse."

This is a wake-up call for people to pay attention, even if it doesn't directly affect them, added Sublette.

"At some point, that costs everybody money in our tax base, so it's one of these things: how much do you want to spend now to avoid bigger, bigger costs later?" he said.

An important step, Sublette said, is determining how to generate energy without putting as many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

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