Extreme devastation, freak chance mark U.S. weather in 2011

2011 was a record-breaking year for the United States, but not in a good way: the Washington Times reported that there were more billion-dollar weather disasters in this calendar year than ever before, and the year’s not over yet.

Even taking inflation into account, the United States this past year had more twisters, floods, snow, drought and wildfires causing at least $1 billion in damages than in the entire 1980’s. Previously, the most billion-dollar disasters recorded were in 2009; the number was nine.

Two more disasters, bringing the count to an even dozen, were added by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) last week. Those weather catastrophes were the Texas, New Mexico and Arizona wildfires and severe weather and tornadoes dating to mid-June.

Several other catastrophes in recent weeks have already passed the $750 million-in-damages mark and may be included in the year-end final count.

NOAA uses $1 billion in damages as the standard by which the most severe weather disasters are rated. Just in 2011 alone, the 12 disasters ranking on NOAA’s list cost the country $52 billion.

Scientists believe there are three factors at work in 2011 weather catastrophe: global warming, greater population density in disaster-prone areas, and an element of freak chance.

The degree of devastation is extreme in and of itself, and it would be tempting to say it’s a sign of things to come, though we would be hard-pressed to see such a convergence of circumstances occurring in one single year again for a while,” Jerry Meehl, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo, told theWashington Times last week.

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator, added that these weather catastrophes, which are increasing with each passing decade, are “an unprecedented challenge for the nation.”