Requests for federal disaster aidjumped tenfoldcompared 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 damagestopping $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,tweetedin 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.
What 2017 taught us about climate and extreme weather
Climate scientists have been warning about extreme weather, that it would become more frequent and intense in new ways. Yet 2017 still seemed like a brutal wake-up call to nature’s extraordinary power, and the frightening possibilities of this warmer world.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about why some weather is so extreme and how much climate change is to blame (especially when it comes to hurricanes). But 2017 gave us more clues about what we can expect in the world to come, hints that hopefully will help us prepare for the future.
This is what we understand about the connections between climate change and the disasters we saw this year.
Rainfall, both the amount and the rate, represents one of thestrongest signalsof climate change. Warmer air increases the evaporation rate of water, and for every degree Celsius increase in temperature, a parcel of air can hold 7 percent more water.
Scientists have found that the amount of rain dished out by heavy rainstorms hasgone up 10 percentsince 1900 due to global warming. Extreme rainfall events aretrending upward, and nine of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have happened since 1990.
And all this moisture-laden air helped drive the powerful hurricanes that made landfall in the United States.
“Hurricanes live and die by the amount of rainfall they make out of moisture,” George Huffman, a research meteorologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told Vox.
“To say this hurricane season has been historic is an understatement,” FEMA Administrator Brock Longtold Congressin October.
Harvey, Irma, and Maria all made landfall as powerful Category 4 storms with winds exceeding 130 mph. Harvey in particular dumped a truly staggering amount of rain over Houston. The estimated 24 trillion gallons that fell there was so heavy itactually depressedthe earth more than half an inch in some spots, according to preliminary analysis from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
These are the types of storms climate scientists expect to see more of in a warmer world.
First off, yes: There’sconsensusthat the science of climate change predicts that in a warming world, hurricanes will become more intense, carry more rain, and cause worse coastal flooding linked in part to sea level rise.
But here’s the thing: We don’t yet currently know,conclusively,that the hurricane season as a whole represents a result of climate change. “At this point it’s really uncertain if there’s any detectable human influence on any hurricane or tropical cyclone metric,” Tom Knutson, an NOAA meteorologist who studies hurricanes, told Vox in October.
There’s just not enough data. Meteorologists have only been tracking hurricanes with satellites since the 1970s. It’s possible that historic hurricane records, which go back to the 1800s, are incomplete or have inaccurate information on wind speeds and size. Considering how hurricanes have been lashing against the Atlantic’s coasts for untold epochs, we just have a tiny slice of data to determine what’s “normal.”
While it’s hard to say if the punishing number and intensity of storms were due to climate change, climate scientists have now determined — intwoseparateresearch efforts — that Hurricane Harvey’s record-blasting rains (best measured in feet for much of Houston) were likely amplified by climate change.
“Human-induced climate change likely increased Harvey’s total rainfall around Houston by at least 19 percent, with a best estimate of 37 percent,”Michael Wehner, a co-author on an attribution study recently published inGeophysicalResearch Letters,said at the American Geophysical Union conference in December. And the corresponding study inEnvironmental Research Lettersconcludedthat climate change increased flooding by around 15 percent.
Even with climate change, Harvey’s rain was an extremely rare event, expected not to return for thousands of years, Karin van der Wiel, a co-author of theEnvironmental Research Lettersstudy, said. Still, the odds of seeing such an extreme event have changed, she says. “It’s between 1.5 and 5 times more likely now than in pre-industrial times.”
What’s still not known: Did climate change alter the odds of seeing three incredibly strong storms — Harvey, Irma, Maria — in a row this season?
“We tend to look at [hurricanes] one at a time,” Wehner said. “What’s the probability of having three extraordinary events? What’s the probability of having $250 billion in damage one season? That’s a blind spot.”
In June, the Western US experienced the most intense heat wave ever to strike soearly in the year, leading to dozens offlight cancellations. On June 21, Ocotillo Wells, California, reported a temperature of 124 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest reading ever in San Diego County.
One of the biggest factors in this year’s record wildfire season was, oddly, rainfall.
Vegetation across much of the drought-stricken west eagerly soaked up the surfeit of water from the wet winter, leading to a rapid, vast growth spurt in trees, grasses, and shrubs in the spring. Then summer and fall brought intense heat that dried out these plants, turning the greenery into fuel.
Wildfires began igniting over the summer, sending chokingair pollutionthrough Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and California. Huge new fires appeared in subsequent months, causingrecord damage, including the ongoing fires around Los Angeles that are poised to burn the rest of the year. The Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, at more than280,000 acres, is the largest fire in California history. Across the United States, more than9.5 million acreshave burned to date, making 2017 the second-worst year for fires in terms of area.
“The context for this is as much about society living in these very fire-prone environments as it is about the climate,” said Tim Brown, director of NOAA’s Western Regional Climate Center. “One significant difference is we’ve had very significant population growth and urban development here since the 1960s.”
And changes in the climate are making many of these wildfires worse. Researchers found that human-caused climate change accounts for55 percentof the increase in drying out of Western forests, a major factor in wildfires, and has led to a doubling of the area burned.
But as with hurricanes, there is some nuance toclimate’s role in wildfires. Rising temperatures and less precipitation have had a bigger effect on fire risk in a temperate region like Northern California but has less of an impact in an area that’s already hot and dry, like Los Angeles County.
At the moment, scientists say they haven’t detected a climate signal in fire patterns in this region. But in study published inEnvironmental Research Lettersin 2015, researchers projected that the area scorched by wildfires in Southern California will grow by as much as77 percentby the middle of the century due to warming.
Such expensive weather events are part of an ongoing trend. Since 1980, there have been218 disastersacross the United States with costs topping $1 billion. The Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year that inflation-adjusted disaster appropriations haveshot up 46 percentfrom a median of $6.2 billion between 2000 and 2006 to $9.1 billion between 2007 and 2013.
And the price of disaster damage iscontinuing to go up, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Part of it is that the hurricanes this year really were immense, but they have a bigger impact when they collide with growing cities. As more people compete for real estate,property values have skyrocketedin Florida and California. That means any time a disaster strikes, it becomes horrendously expensive to repair all the infrastructure and personal property.
But it’s still difficult to tabulate the costs of the storms. Many of the dollar values are drawn from insured properties, which represent only a fraction of the devastation. Over the past decade, only30 percentof catastrophic losses around the world were insured, according to the reinsurance firm Swiss Re. That leaves a gap of $1.7 trillion in uninsured damages.
And for a place like Puerto Rico, still mired inblackout, the estimated$95 billionit will cost to rebuild doesn’t really convey all the suffering caused by the storm. About43 percentof the island’s 3.3 million residents live below the poverty line, so the dollar amount of the damage may be lower than for places like Houston, Texas, with large homes and expensive industrial facilities.
Now the big question is who pays the bill. FEMA has offered more than $3.3 billion in aid to disaster victims through its Individuals and Households Program and $1.4 billion in public assistance this year. But it’scrunched for cash, as the huge storms and fires have depleted its reserves. An$81 billionemergency disaster relief package for Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and California is likely to languish for weeks as Congress leaves for the holidays.
The disasters will have long-lasting health effects
The disasters of 2017 took hundreds of lives. Hurricane Maria was especially cruel, with estimates ofmore than 1,000 deathsin Puerto Rico. Hurricane Harvey was responsible for taking82 lives. The Tubbs Fire in Northern California killed 22 people. There were at leastsix deathsattributed to heat waves this year.
Yet the toll of storms, fires, floods, and heat on human health can also be more insidious and can linger for years.
Heat is rarely listed as a cause of death, but it can be a factor in heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory arrests. High temperatures alsoworsen deadly air pollutantslike ozone, which is linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma.
When concentrations of very small particles of wood smoke pollution (smaller than 2.5 microns, a.k.a. “PM 2.5”) reach above 10 micrograms per cubic meter, researchersfinda 7 percent increase in asthma inhaler refills. “But if there’s a 100 microgram per meter smoke day, we’d expect that to go to a 100 percent increase of inhaler refills for the population,” Katelyn O’Dell, who studies the health hazards of wildfire smoke at Colorado state university said. Many of the wildfires this past year created conditions thatexceededthis level of pollution.
Researchers expect that as climate change makes wildfires more likely over the course of this century, deaths and illnesses attributed to pollution from wood smoke will rise too, even offsetting gains made from cleaning up emissions from industry.
And the fury of a hurricane can leave people scraped, bruised, crushed, or drowned. When a storm cuts off electricity, other dangers abound. “Just about every interaction with the health system now involves electricity, from calling a hospital for help to accessing electronic medical records and powering lifesaving equipment like hemodialysis machines or ventilators,” Vox’s Julia Belluzwrotein the wake of Hurricane Maria.
Disasters are a strain not just on physical health but on mental health as well. “Expect a burden of mental health problems, which will include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s particularly going to impact groups who don’t have access to rapid opportunities for recovery,” Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, told Vox after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.
After a major disaster, studiesfind a 5 to 15 percentincrease in the incidence of mental health problems among survivors.
“We all have a threshold that if we watch a loved one swept away in rushing water and drown, that can definitely create post-traumatic stress disorder,” Charles Benight, who studies trauma at the University of Colorado, said during the peak of the hurricane season.
We’ve always been vulnerable to natural disasters. But now the climate is changing.
There are few signs at the local or federal level that policymakers are taking the risks of climate change and extreme weather seriously, and some forces are even exacerbating the risk.
Engineers have long known that Houstonis especially prone to flooding, yet land developers have acted as though the risk is nonexistent for decades. Future development will need to reckon with a need for better drainage.
As sea levels rise and disaster risks to coastal communities grow, some planners are broaching the idea of a“strategic retreat”from areas that face persistent floods and fires. And based on projections showing these events happening over and over, we should besaving up moneyto rebuild when these disasters happen again.
Even without the threat of climate change, we’ve long known that hurricanes are dangerous. They’ve inflicted grave damage on coastal communities for as long as we’ve had them. Louisiana has long been notorious for flooding, and Arizona renowned for triple-digit heat, and wildfires have always been an iconic part of the American West.
But the climateischanging, and the potential harm from these events is growing. In a recent analysis of climate events from last year, 2016, scientists determined three events — record-breaking global heat, a heat wave over Asia, and a“blob”of unusually warm water in the Northern Pacific — could not have occurred without human-induced climate change. “I’ve never seen that language in a paper until now,” Jeff Rosenfeld, editor-in-chief ofBulletin of the American Meteorological Society,which published the report, said. “We’re virtually certain that [these events were] impossible without human-induced climate change.”
So larger hurricanes are coming. More wildfires will ignite. Longer heat waves will sear. And other climate disasters are likely grow bigger, more intense, more expensive, and more frequent. We see them on the horizon. And we need to start preparing now.