2011 Setting Records in all the Wrong Places

[A recent SACE blogpost on extreme weather and climate change has been modified/updated to serve as a year-end climate action/policy recap for 2011]

Image copyright WSAV/NBC.com

Setting records is typically an accomplishment we celebrate: running the fastest mile, being the first to achieve a goal or even recovering from the brink of extinction/extirpation. But in 2011, we set records in all the wrong places when it came to climate and weather disasters. In the year that ends today, the U.S. was battered by 12 separate natural disasters that each sported (at least) a $1 billion price tag. Put another way: there were as many billion-dollar climate/weather disasters in 2011 as in the entire decade of the 1980s. The final number could be higher still as damages from Tropical Storm Lee and a rare Halloween weekend snowstorm in the Northeast are still being tallied, and a source at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) indicates both are very close to the billion dollar mark. It is little comfort to those impacted by these disasters that 2011 is likely to rank as ‘only’ the third costliest weather year (with $52 billion in costs) despite the record-setting number of events.

Few regions escaped 2011 unscathed, but the year was  particularly damaging for the Southeast as our region suffered through (1) five tornado outbreaks in April and May, (2) flooding along the Mississippi River during the summer, (3) another tornado outbreak in June,  (4) storm damage from Hurricane Irene in August and (5) extensive flooding damage in the Gulf states from Tropical Storm Lee in September.

A skeptic might try to argue that this year’s onslaught of floods, droughts, wildfires, windstorms, blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes was simply an aberration or an anomoly.  The sobering truth is that NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco confirmed that 2011 might be a harbinger of things to come. NOAA’s climate scientists indicate “there is evidence that climate change may affect the frequency of certain extreme weather events. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. There are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century.” And it’s not just climate scientists who are making the climate-weather connections: a majority of those Americans surveyed by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication believe that global warming made 2011′s extreme weather worse.

The measurable uptick in the number of billion dollar disasters in the past decade lends weight to Lubchenco’s and NOAA’s statements around increasing frequency as the chart below confirms that more than half of the disasters (58 of the 112) occurred from 2002-2011.

Projections of increased extreme weather incidents doesn’t bode well for the Southeast.  As the map below notes, the majority of the $1 billion weather/climate disasters in the last 31 years have occurred here in the Southeast according to extensive record keeping by NCDC.

And leaving aside 2011′s billion dollar disasters for just a moment, it’s also notable that the first 11 months of the year were warmer than average for the U.S. These warmer temperatures were evident in 2/3 of the country, according to NOAA data, with only Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington being cooler than average during that period. Also worth noting the very significant regional differences in precipitation for 2011: Texas was record dry whereas Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont experienced the wettest January-November period on record. The variations fit perfectly into  climate models that predict a warming world will mean warmer or colder than average temperatures and, due to increased evaporation, wetter or drier conditions that average.

Warming temperatures may lead to an increased numbers of natural disasters, but we needn’t spend more time trying to answer the question “What’s causing warming temperatures?” A large body of evidence, accumulated over several decades from hundreds of studies, supports the conclusion that human activity is the primary driver of recent warming. “Science and Distortion” – a video tribute to the late Climatologist and Stanford Professor Stephen Schneider (1945-2010) – makes it clear the question we should be trying to answer is “What steps can we take to reduce the level of warming in order to mitigate its impacts?”

Stephen Schneider: Science and Distortion

The ‘simple’ answer? Reduce the amount of carbon pollution by increasing renewable energy production and implementing energy efficiency gains. Most unfortunately, the 112th U.S. Congress did the opposite, setting its own records for environmental and energy rollbacks.  There were dozens of attempts to weaken Clean Air Act protections, expedite the permitting process for the carbon-intensive Keystone XL oil pipeline, stymie EPA’s attempts to safeguard public health from coal ash and gut consumer savings gained from lighting efficiency standards resulting from the 2007 Energy Bill.

Other nations, notably the E.U. and Australia, have policies in place to require a reduction in fossil-fuel emissions, but a new global agreement may still be a decade away. The Durban Platform, finalized during the December 2011 international climate negotiations, agrees that all countries will be covered under the same carbon-reducing regime by 2020. However, if climate models are accurate, and a warming world does cause more extreme weather events, then another decade of carbon pollution may point us towards a future in which billion-dollar disasters become the norm.

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