It’s official: 2017 was the costliest year on record for natural disasters in the United States, with a price tag of at least $306 billion.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks billion-dollar disasters, noted Monday that the record total came from 16 separate events with damages exceeding $1 billion.
If that seems shocking, 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.
2017 was the third-hottest year on record. San Francisco reported its highest temperature ever, 106 degrees Fahrenheit, while other parts of the country set records for high-temperature streaks. For states like Arizona and South Carolina, 2017 was the warmest year ever.
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.
You can see the relative scale of these events in the map below, which is based on estimates from NOAA and other sources. (This map doesn’t include the Thomas Fire, the single-largest wildfire in California history, which is still burning.)
Another chart from NOAA shows the that number of billion-dollar disasters in a given year is on the rise (bars), and 2017 reached an unprecedented peak in the cumulative total in damage (gray line):
All told, NOAA’s estimate of $306 billion is very likely conservative — other estimates put the total closer to $400 billion.
But even though the unending string of calamities felt unprecedented, 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.