Extreme Weather, Its Effect on the Economy and You

How Much Extreme Weather Costs You

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 Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Extreme weather is a meteorological event that falls outside the realm of normal patterns. Weather describes conditions in the Earth’s atmosphere that occur over a short period such as days.

Climate describes the weather that occurs over a longer time such as decades. Climate affects weather. For example, weather in the temperate areas is more variable than at the equator or the poles.

Since 1900, the climate has been changing more rapidly than in the past. The average earth temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius since then. The two poles of the earth have been affected the most by climate change. The change has caused more frequent and damaging extreme weather. The cost since 1980 has been $1.6 trillion.

Extreme Weather Events

Any list of extreme weather events includes tornados, wildfires, hurricanes, blizzards, floods and landslides, heat waves, and droughts. Extreme weather includes storms, whether they be dust, hail, rain, snow, or ice.

What makes a weather event extreme? A storm becomes extreme when it exceeds local averages or sets a record. Extreme weather in one location may be normal weather in another. For example, a heavy snowstorm in January is extreme weather in Scottsdale, Arizona, but not in Boston, Massachusetts. Also, any weather event that creates a lot of death and damage is extreme.

Examples of Recent Events

In 2019, snow fell at a record-low elevation in Hawaii. In 2014, blizzards hit the Midwest, shrinking the economy by 2.1%. The warming Arctic has increased the frequency of blizzards in the northeast United States and Europe. When the Arctic suddenly warms, it splits the polar vortex. That's a zone of cold air that circles the Arctic at high altitudes. When it splits, it sends its freezing temperatures southward. When it meets moist air from the warming oceans, it creates a bomb cyclone that dumps massive amounts of snow.

In July 2018, heat waves set new temperature records all over the world. Death Valley had the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. The average temperature was 108 degrees Fahrenheit. In China, 22 counties and cities almost reported their hottest months ever.

Several cities hit all-time temperature records, including Los Angeles at 111 F, Amsterdam at 94.6 F, and London at 95 F. Ouargla, Algeria, reached 124.34 F, the highest temperature reliably recorded in Africa. On August 12, 2018, Glacier National Park in Montana hit 100 F for the first time ever.

That same year, wildfires engulfed the American northwest and California. The frequency of western U.S. wildfires has increased by 400% since 1970. These fires have burned six times the land area as before and last five times longer. Their fierce temperatures consume all nutrients and vegetation, leaving little to grow back. The fire season itself is also two months longer than in the early 1970s.

In 2010, massive wildfires in Russia devastated crops. That helped send global food prices up 4.8% in 2011, contributing to the Arab Spring uprising. In 2015, California's sixth year of drought cost $2.7 billion and 21,000 jobs.

The 2011 tornado season was the worst in history. In one week in April, 362 twisters hit the Southeast, causing $11 billion in damage. In May, the single most destructive tornado in history hit Joplin, Missouri. It killed 161 people and cost $3.2 billion when adjusted for inflation. Global warming could be increasing tornado damage. As the Gulf of Mexico warms, it allows the atmosphere to hold more moisture. That increases the contrast when it hits the cold air from the Rockies.

That same year, the Mississippi River flooded in a 500-year event that cost $2 billion. Hurricane Irene cost $45 billion in economic damages.

In 2008, Southern China experienced the highest rainfall in history. It ruined crops on 860,000 hectares of cropland. Heavy rainfall in the Midwest caused flooding, resulting in the destruction of 12% of crops.

Causes

Some of the increase in extreme weather is caused by a destabilizing polar vortex. First, warmer Arctic temperatures have split off portions of it, affecting the jet stream. That’s a river of wind high in the atmosphere that races from west to east at speeds up to 275 miles an hour. It undulates north and south as it goes.

Second, the jet stream is created by temperature contrasts between the Arctic and temperate zones. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe. That slows down the jet stream and makes it wobblier. When it wobbles down, it brings cold Arctic air into temperate zones. When it wobbles up, it brings warmer air into Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland.

Global warming creates higher ocean temperatures at deeper depths to feed hurricane strength. It creates more humidity in the air and fewer winds around the storm. M.I.T. models predict that there will be more hurricanes in general by 2035 and that 11% of these will be Category 3, 4, and 5 classes. It predicted 32 super-extreme storms with winds above 190 miles per hour.

Economic Effects

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, extreme weather cost $1.6 trillion between 1980 and 2018. There were 241 events costing more than $1 billion each.

The most damaging events are hurricanes. Since 1980, hurricane damage has totaled $919.7 billion and killed 6,497 people. The three most expensive storms have all occurred since 2005: Katrina at $160 billion, Harvey at $125 billion, and Maria at $90 billion.

Drought, the next most expensive, cost $244.3 billion since 1980. The heat waves associated with most droughts killed 2,993 people.

Here are the next most damaging extreme weather events:

  • Tornados, hail storms, and thunderstorms cost $226.9 billion and killed 1,615 people.
  • Floods not associated with hurricanes cost $123.5 billion and killed 543 people.
  • Wildfires cost $78.8 billion and killed 344 people.
  • Winter storms cost $47.3 billion and killed 1,044 people.
  • Crop freezes cost $30 billion and killed 162 people.

Extreme weather events are especially damaging to agriculture. For example, Italy, world-renowned for its excellent olive oil, may have to import it instead. In 2018, extreme weather cut production by 57%. It cost businesses $1.13 billion.

How It Affects You

Heat-related deaths are one of the worst weather-related outcomes, killing 650 Americans each year. The urban heat island effect from concrete and asphalt have made daytime temperatures 5 F hotter and nighttime temperatures 22 degrees hotter.

Heat waves worsen asthma. They encourage plants to produce "super pollen" that's larger and more allergenic. As a result, 50 million asthma and allergy sufferers pay for increased health care costs.

Hurricanes and floods create higher rates of hepatitis C, SARS, and hantavirus. Flooded sewage systems spread the germs through contaminated water.

Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm, blamed global warming for $24 billion of losses in the California wildfires. It warned that insurance firms will have to raise premiums to cover rising costs from extreme weather. That could make insurance too expensive for most people. California utility Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy. It faced $30 billion in fire-related liability costs. The haze from the 2018 California wildfires drifted to New York and parts of New England.

Since 2008, extreme weather has displaced 22.5 million people. Immigrants are leaving flooded coastlines, drought-stricken farmlands, and areas of extreme natural disasters. By 2050, climate change will force 700 million people to emigrate. 

Immigration at the U.S. border will only increase as global warming destroys crops and leads to food insecurity in Latin America. Almost half of Central American immigrants left because there wasn't enough food. By 2050, climate change could send 1.4 million people north.

Outlook

By 2100, extreme weather in North America will increase by 50%. It will cost the U.S. government $112 billion per year. Between 2007 and 2017, it cost more than $350 billion.

The airline industry may be next as extreme weather affects the jet stream. In 2019, an ice storm in Canada combined with a heat wave in Florida made the jet stream speed up. It sent a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 hurtling across Pennsylvania at a record 801 mph. As the jet stream further destabilizes, it could create more turbulence and airline crashes. Extreme weather and rising sea levels caused by global warming endanger 128 military bases. 

Global warming may be shifting tornadoes eastward, according to a recent study published in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science. Since 1980, the states east of the Mississippi have experienced more tornadoes while the Great Plains and Texas have seen fewer. That could lead to more death and destruction since the east is more populated than the west.

When extreme weather starts to feel normal, people have an inborn ability to adapt. But adaptation won’t work when the change becomes too great. If the world keeps emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate, average temperatures will reach the 2 C goal in 2037. The Arctic would warm by 6 C and the U.S. Southwest would warm by 5.5 C. It would create near-permanent "superdroughts."

Seven Steps You Can Take Today

To combat the global warming that creates extreme weather, there are seven simple steps you can take today.

Plant trees and other vegetation to halt deforestation. You can also donate to charities that plant trees. For example, Eden Reforestation hires local residents to plant trees in Madagascar and Africa for $0.10 a tree. It also gives the very poor people an income, rehabilitates their habitat, and saves species from mass extinction.

Become carbon neutral. The average American emits 16 tons of CO2 a year. According to Arbor Environmental Alliance, 100 mangrove trees can absorb 2.18 metric tons of CO2 annually. The average American would need to plant 734 mangrove trees to offset one year’s worth of CO2. At $0.10 a tree, that would cost $73. Carbonfootprint.com provides a free carbon calculator to estimate your personal carbon emissions.

Slow deforestation by avoiding products using palm oil. Most of its production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. Tropical forests and carbon-rich swamps are cleared for its plantations.  Avoid products with generic vegetable oil as an ingredient. You can also avoid products such as guitars, furniture, and other products made from tropical hardwoods such as mahogany, cedar, rosewood, and ebony.

Enjoy a plant-based diet with less meat. Monoculture crops to feed cows destroy forests. The Drawdown Coalition estimated those forests would have absorbed 39.3 gigatons of carbon dioxide. In addition, cows create methane, a greenhouse gas. 

Vote for candidates who promise a solution to global warming The Sunrise Movement is pressuring Congress to adopt a Green New Deal. It outlines steps that will reduce U.S annual greenhouse emissions from 2016 by 16%. That's what's needed to achieve the Paris Agreement's 2025 reduction target. Each of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have a plan to attack climate change.

Pressure corporations to disclose and act on their climate-related risks Since 1988, 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Hold the government accountable.  Each year, $2 trillion is invested in building new energy infrastructure. The International Energy Administration said that governments control 70% of that. 

In 2015, a group of Oregon teenagers sued the federal government for worsening global warming. They said the government's actions violated their rights and those of future generations under the U.S. Constitution. They point out that the government has known for over 50 years that fossil fuels cause climate change. Despite this knowledge, government regulations supported the spread of 25% of the world's carbon emissions. It asks the court to force the government to create a plan to change course.

The Bottom Line

Global warming is causing global climate change. It is the culprit behind the sharp increase of extreme weather events plaguing the world these past few decades. In the United States alone, each record-setting hurricane, wildfire, tornado, drought, and flood have cost billions in damages and an alarming death toll. The expense has contributed to our nation’s rising national deficit.

The 2016 Paris Climate Agreement is a global effort. Its goal is to keep the earth’s temperature from dangerously increasing more than 2 C. If the current pace of carbon emissions is reduced, we will experience more and more extreme weather events. Life as we know it will change, as we struggle to radically adapt to enormous environmental pressures.

Everyone must do their part now to reduce global warming by voting for legislation and leaders supporting environmental protection. We should decrease our demand for meat and palm oil products, increase efforts on reforestation, and be aware of our carbon emissions, to name a few.