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Billion-dollar climate disasters rise with drought in Colorado, the American West

NOAA report details growing total of weather and climate chaos biting deep into U.S. economy
Vehicles buried by rock and mud north of Hermosa after summer monsoons caused mudslides below the 416 Fire burn scar. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Record drought in the American West contributes to a growing number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters across the country, and the quickening pace of large-scale events makes recovery slower and pricier, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Drought covered 63% of the contiguous United States on Oct. 25, the largest such footprint since the severe drought of 2012, according to the report, released Tuesday at Denver’s national convention for the American Meteorological Society.

Forty percent or more of the lower 48 states has been in drought for the past 119 weeks, a record in more than 20 years of the U.S. Drought Monitor reports. That’s approaching double the previous record of 68 weeks begun in 2012’s drought.

Impacts of drought hit tourism, agriculture, transportation through shutdowns of a dry Mississippi River barge industry, and other economic sectors, said NOAA climate researcher Adam Smith.

“We can see how drought costs tens of billions of dollars, across many different industries,” Smith said.

Drought contributes to more multibillion-dollar disasters in the form of growing wildfire threats, NOAA officials said.

“What we once referred to as fire season has now become a fire year,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinstad said in releasing the climate-cost report.

Many parts of the contiguous U.S. are in a record string of drought designations, according to a new federal study. (U.S. Drought Monitor and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

NOAA researchers tallied 18 separate billion-dollar-plus weather and climate disasters in 2022, the third largest count in 43 years of inflation-adjusted record keeping, and the third-costliest year. Charts showing the annual tallies have spiked noticeably in recent years, and ongoing temperature changes across the planet will only exacerbate those disasters, researchers say.

“Buckle up,” Spinstad said.

Elsewhere in the U.S., rising ocean temperatures and other climate changes are raising the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast and southeastern seaboard, the kinds of weather catastrophes that create the costliest property damage. Those damage totals balloon as popular coastal areas develop and face an increase in major storms.

“More people and property in harm’s way. It’s a bad situation,” Smith said. “Both trends are going in the wrong direction.”

Other notable statistics from the NOAA disaster report:

  • Average annual temperatures in the lower 48 hit 53.4 degrees, 1.4 degrees above the recent historical average and the third warmest year on record.
  • Average precipitation across the U.S. in 2022 was 28.35 inches, 1.59 inches below average, also the third driest on record. (Colorado’s average annual precipitation, including snowpack, is about 17 inches.)
  • New Mexico’s Hermits Peak fire burned more than 341,000 acres and became the largest fire on record in that state, though the national total of 7.5 million acres burned was near the average.
  • Climate change makes it more likely for disaster to “compound,” NOAA said. For example, with Northern California now experiencing torrential rains, the string of disasters includes drought, wildfire burn scars, and mudslides and flooding from heavy rain running off burn scars.
Expensive climate and weather disasters approached previous years' records, in a new report from U.S. climate researchers. Hurricanes, usually the most expensive disasters, piled on top of western drought and wildfires and midwestern thunderstorms. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Some of the California rain is welcome, NOAA officials said, but they don’t expect it to make a large difference yet in historic conditions.

“We need to see reservoir consequences from the current storm,” Smith said. “They might help remediate the localized drought, but will not solve the long-term drought challenges.”

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