The frequency and severity of most so-called “natural” disasters in the United States – excessive heat, fires, drought, and floods — have increased significantly in recent decades. The reason is that there is nothing natural about them. They are the result of higher levels of global greenhouse gasses (GGGs) in the atmosphere leading to higher temperatures. In the past decade, record high readings in the U.S. have occurred at twice the frequency of record lows. Large forest fires (those that burn more than 12,400 acres) now occur twice as often as they would without global warming. In the American West alone, wildfires have increased 400% since 1970. And the trendlines augur for even larger and more destructive fires in the future. The Camp Fire in Paradise, CA in 2018 killed 85 people and destroyed nearly 14,000 homes. This year, more than 250,000 acres have burned, leading to mass evacuations and rolling blackouts.
Higher temperatures combined with wasteful water use, have created drought in the American Southwest and West Coast, and diminished mountain snow packs (due to warmer temperatures) making future droughts a near certainty. At the same time, greater heat also means more evaporation of ocean waters, higher relative humidity and greater chances of heavy rain, at least in places where weather patterns make that possible. Severe rainstorms in the U.S. have been increasing in the past two generations, especially in the Midwest (43%), East (55%) and South (27). What were once “100 year” or “500 year” flood events, now occur with much greater frequency, even yearly in places such as St. Louis, and coastal North and South Carolina. The rainfall from Hurricane Harvey in Houston in 2017 (more than 50 inches in some areas) was biblical in proportion. Additional heavy rainfall and serious flooding occurred in Houston in 2018 and 2019.
The estimated dollar cost of un-natural disasters in 2018 was $91 billion. Tropical cyclones ($22.3 billion per event) and flooding ($4.5 billion) were together the most costly calamities, according to a study by NOAA, and dollar figures for future disasters are certain to rise as the climate continues to warm. Even more alarming, the annual loss of life from these events is also rising sharply. Flood deaths in the U.S increased 25% in the last 30 years, and will continue to rise unless action is taken. Surprisingly, the majority of these deaths occurred not on the coasts, but inland, the consequence of inadequate infrastructure investment, environmental degradation, and irresponsible development, in addition to global warming. Less surprising, the majority of victims of flooding, both in terms of loss of life and loss of property, are from poor, and historically marginalized communities, particularly, black, Latinx, Chicano and Native American. Historically disadvantaged populations are also the most likely to suffer from heat and drought. Fire is the only climate disaster more likely to strike the rich than the poor, but the former has a much greater chance of recovery than the latter.
Unless the U.S. government undertakes a major overhaul of its disaster mitigation and response programs, restricts development in fire prone zones as well as floodplains and ecologically sensitive forest, coastal and wetland areas, and most of all, mandates a rapid and dramatic reduction in the release of GGGs, (and natural sequestration of GGGs), these disasters, destruction of property and loss of life are certain to increase dramatically in the years ahead.
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