Storms, fires, floods, and heat caused unprecedented destruction in 2017. Why?
2017 is about to become the most expensive disaster year in US history, costing nearly $400 billion in damages.
How did that happen? Consider some of the record-breaking weather events that came our way:
- California was drenched in the wettest winter on record, ending years of drought.
- Then came California’s most destructive and largest wildfire season ever. The Tubbs Fire in Northern California killed 22 people and damaged more than 5,600 structures.
- Hurricane Harvey broke a rainfall record for a single tropical storm with more than 4 feet of rain.
- Puerto Rico is still mired in the longest blackout in US history after Hurricane Maria struck three months ago. More than 1,000 are estimated to have died in the storm and its aftermath.
- San Francisco reported its hottest temperature ever, 106 degrees Fahrenheit, while other parts of the country set records for high-temperature streaks.
- 14 places across Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas reported record-high water levels during floods in April and May.
- Requests for federal disaster aid jumped tenfold compared to 2016, with 4.7 million people registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As of October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had counted 15 disasters with damages topping $1 billion, tying 2017 with 2011 for the most billion-dollar disasters in a year to date. And that was before the California wildfires. (We included some of those fires in the map below):
The unending string of calamities was shocking to many Americans. As Paolo Bacigalupi, who writes climate dystopia fiction, tweeted in August: “The thing that bothers me most about these unprecedented disasters is that even I imagined they wouldn’t happen for a long time yet.”
Yet we must see 2017 as an average year, if not a baseline. We must reckon with the likelihood of even worse storms, heat waves, fires, and droughts as the Earth warms — because scientists expect even this “new normal” to get worse.
The reasons for this are many: As the climate changes, the US is becoming much more vulnerable to disasters. People keep flocking to live in places we know are likely to be hit. And our policies don’t protect them, not by a long shot.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from 2017, and what they suggest for how to prepare for future catastrophes.