With climate extrema continue to expose human and natural system vulnerabilities, natural disaster cost are skyrocketing and dozens of billions in damages each year become common, many are asking how this will continue.
According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) 2011 is estimated to become the costliest year for weather-related disasters since they began tracking billion-dollar disasters in 1980. There seems to be a pattern of more extreme, more frequent and more hazardous weather disasters emerging. Based on HVRI data (in 2009 USD) 6 of the 15 costliest years of the last 50 years where during the last decade. With losses of property & crop in 2009 totaling up to USD 67.4 billion after the record losses of USD 111.6 billion in 2005 and the almost 3 times the average (USD 11.4 billion) year of 2004 with USD 30.4 billion, losses of USD 23 billion in 2008, USD 16.2 billion in 2001 and USD 11.9 billion in 2006 these 6 peak years of the last decade combined have caused damages of USD 260.5 billion. That there is a change in extreme weather phenomena happening becomes even clearer when looking at the overall damage totals from the last 50 years (USD 573.6 billion) where those 6 peak years of the last decade represent more than 45% of all losses occurred during the recorded time frame (HVRI has data published from 1960 – 2009).
The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) tracked 3 more than an USD billion disasters for 2010 and 2011 has already topped their 30 year record of 2008 (8 events) with so-far 10 (multi)-billion disasters (Hurricane Irene being the 10th).
(image source NCDC)
Munich Re which has the worldwide largest database of natural catastrophes has a total of 950 natural catastrophes recorded for 2010 globally, the second-highest number of natural catastrophes since 1980. The U.S. got lucky that year escaping one of the severest hurricane seasons of the past 100 years with no hurricane hitting the U.S. during 2010. Their data also shows that Asia and America are most frequently hit by catastrophes, with 365 events recorded on the American continent and 310 in Asia during 2010 (The global distribution of natural catastrophes in 2010 was comparable to previous years). According to Munich Re already in June 2011, record global damages this year have surpassed the entirety of 2005, the previous record-holder of the most damaging year.
In the U.S. 2011 has so far seen the longest list of billion-dollar disasters with damage estimates without the Upper Midwest Flooding Summer 2011 and Hurricane Irene already beyond USD 30 billions for these most severe events alone. Add at least USD 3 Billion for the Upper Midwest Flooding Summer 2011 of which some predict that damages could be as high as the USD 25 billion record flood of 1993, and Hurricane Irene of USD 7 billion, 2011 will become another peak year on the list of the 15 most costliest years during the last 50 years. These estimates might rise substantially when all numbers have become available later this year.
When looking at data for the past decades it becomes clear that the economic cost of disasters have been continuously on the rise for the last 50 years. Already at the beginning of this decade losses were more than 7 times greater than during the 1960s. And most of these losses are reported from highly developed countries.
Many of these numbers account only for direct losses of property, infrastructure and other assets but do not take into account other economic implications like reduced levels of production, future productivity or output e.g. with farming, property value impacts etc. In Florida, for example, the U.S. government a few years ago had to indemnify property insurers from potential extreme losses of natural disasters by taking over coverage of damage payouts above a certain (few billions) level. Otherwise insurers would have most likely already stopped covering most ocean front property from natural disaster damages. With the high share of these properties in the overall U.S. property value this weather related change alone would have had devastating consequences for the U.S. housing markets and overall economy – most likely at least at a scale similar to the economic / housing crisis of 2008.
Even more life and long term changes are occurring in Texas where Governor and wanna-be U.S. president Perry is suggesting to his voters to pray for rain as a remedy for the now already year long exceptional (beyond extreme) drought affecting more than 82% of the lone state. Currently 98% of the pasture and range land in Texas is considered to be in poor or very poor condition. The image from Drought Monitor below shows the current extend of the exceptional drought that earlier the year also reached into the South-Eastern states of Alabama, Kentucky and Florida. We would like to suggest to Gov. Perry to watch a movie from a religious group of farmers & gardeners called “Back To Eden” that reminds everyone to return to sustainable farming, repair the land and not to further deplete resources and start preparing for the years to come (This might of course not go down so well with the lobbyists backing/paying that person).
(image source Drought Monitor)
In Texas, the corn harvest is already lost, cattle is dying in thousands of thirst on dry pastures, drinking water shortages in main cities are increasing. Many farmers are since months selling whole herds of cattle before they die from the drought. Thousands of farmers and their families often having harvested their land for generations, are now considering to give up ranching and farming. Once most of their water holes have fallen dry and they can not rent other land or feed their cattle with purchased supply, they have to sell their herds or watch them dying. With the driest period since 1917 bush and forest fires that have this year already devastated more than 10’000 square miles are doing the rest. And many of the cowboys that now have found work at cattle auctions & markets will become unemployed by the year end with little chance to find new work afterwards. Even if it would now start raining for a long period so that water reservoirs would refill to normal levels, ranchers will need years to rebuild their livestock. Many of their haggard cows if they manage to survive will certainly not have calves next year.
Already now only 1 out of 5 ranchers can live of their land alone, the extreme drought means that even more will have to look for a second job aside.
(image source NCDC)
While previous sell-outs of livestock have deteriorated meat prices, this time with the ever increasing global demand for meat, prices have remained merely stable. As a consequence for the next years this most likely also means that meat prices will further rise when U.S. production will not return to levels before the drought. Other farm commodity prices could also rise substantially – hay (alpha-alpha) for example has so-far seen a doubling of its price during the last 12 months.
And the outlook for the area from California to Texas is rather bleak.
In difference to Gov. Perry who is in full denial and seemingly does not care for the consequence to millions of Americans (as long as it does not affect himself), even U.S. government agencies have started to acknowledge that much of this climate change, the increase in frequency and strength of hazardous weather is man-made by pollution and the way we use our resources.
The U.S. Climate Change Science Program has already warned in a 2008 report that more frequent heat waves and warm spells, more frequent and intense heavy downpours, increased areas affected by droughts and more intense hurricanes will become more likely and more frequent in the future. Based on simulations and decades of data most of these weather phenomena were linked to human activity and their likeliness strongly increasing if pollution levels will not reduce over the next years.
The pattern of change is visible and laid out in front of us. The time to act is now.
Further information and data:
- Munich Re
- NCDC – Billion-Dollar Weather/Climate Disasters 2011
- NCDC – chart of 1980 – 2011
- NCDC – Overview
- Sheldus database
- HVRI – 2009 summary
- HVRI – 1960 – 2009 summary
- Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate / U.S. Climate Change Science Program SAP
- NOAA – State of the Climate – National Overview – August 2011
- Drought Monitor