20 ‘Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters’ Hit U.S. in 2021

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which calls itself “the Nation’s Scorekeeper in terms of addressing severe weather and climate events,” reported that there were 20 “weather/climate disaster events” with losses exceeding $1 billion each that affected the U.S. in 2021. These events included one drought event, two flooding events, 11 severe storm events, four tropical cyclone events, one wildfire event, and one winter storm event (Figure 1). The events had significant economic effects on the areas impacted, the NCEI said, with overall costs estimated to be about $145 billion.

1. This map denotes the approximate location for each of the 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters that impacted the U.S. in 2021. Source: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2022). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/, DOI: 10.25921/stkw-7w73

While the number of billion-dollar disasters was higher than average, it did not exceed the record set in 2020 of 22 such events. Notably, however, far more deaths were attributed to events in 2021 (688) than in 2020 (262).

The NCEI also reported that the average temperature in the contiguous U.S. was 54.5F in 2021. The value was 2.5F greater than the 20th-century average. 2021 ranked as the fourth-warmest year in the 127-year period of record.

The annual precipitation total in the U.S. was near normal on a national scale, but the NCEI noted there were several significant events involving precipitation on a regional level. It specifically mentioned “an above-average monsoon season across the Southwest and several atmospheric river events along the Pacific Coast,” while noting that drought remained extensive across much of the western U.S. during the year.

The NCEI published a graphic that included information compiled from NOAA’s “State of the Climate Reports.” Among significant items included on the illustration are details about the Texas “cold-air outbreak” in February; record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest in June; Category 4 Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in Louisiana in August; widespread tornadoes that struck the Southeast and Midwest in December; and wildfires across the West through much of the year.

The winter storm and cold wave that struck much of the U.S. Feb. 10–19, 2021, was historic. It brought frigid temperatures, snow, and ice from the Plains to southern Texas. The NCEI said it was the coldest event across the continental U.S. in more than 30 years and caused power outages for nearly 10 million people. Of the 20 “billion-dollar weather and climate disaster” events in 2021, the February cold spell ranked second in terms of both cost ($24.0 billion) and deaths (226 people), according to the NCEI.

Yet, the nation not only experienced unusual cold last year, it also witnessed extreme heat. Temperature records were shattered across many parts of the Pacific Northwest June 27–30, 2021. Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, broke all-time highs by significant margins. Temperatures in Portland reportedly soared to 116F during the heat wave, breaking the city’s previous all-time high of 107F. Further north, in Seattle, temperatures reached a sizzling 108F, surpassing the previous record of 103F set in 2009. In Lytton, British Columbia, the temperature hit 121F, setting a new national record in Canada.

The Dixie Fire started on July 13, 2021. The fire burned on the Plumas National Forest, Lassen National Forest, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and across five counties: Butte, Lassen, Plumas, Shasta, and Tehama. Drought, combined with hot weather, strong winds, and exceptionally dry vegetation, resulted in very active fire behavior, according to an incident information system managed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. NCEI reported that the Dixie Fire was the second-largest fire in California history, consuming more than 963,000 acres in 2021. Yet, even with the large blaze factored in, total acres burned during the Western wildfire season was said to be near average for the year. The numbers were still mind-boggling, however. The NCEI reported “Western Wildfires” cost $10.6 billion and resulted in 8 deaths, and it said more than 7.1 million acres burned nationally during the 2021 wildfire season.

Hurricane Ida made landfall on Aug. 29, 2021, as the fifth-strongest hurricane to ever strike the continental U.S. More than one million residents—including everyone in New Orleans, Louisiana—were without power at some point during the event, according to the NCEI. The NCEI reported that Ida was by far the most-costly weather and climate disaster event of 2021, at an estimated cost of $75.0 billion, and was one of the most-deadly events as well, with 96 people losing their lives as a result of the hurricane. While Louisiana’s levees largely withstood Hurricane Ida, the event did expose some energy infrastructure vulnerabilities.

In December 2021, tornadoes ripped across the central and southern U.S. The outbreak was notable in many ways. For example, the thunderstorms and tornadoes they produced traveled significant distances—sometimes far more than 100 miles—and the impacts were widespread. NOAA’s National Weather Service confirmed at least 61 tornadoes developed over the period, mainly on Dec. 10 and 11. Tornadoes were reported in eight states—Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia, Ohio, and Indiana—with at least 90 people reportedly killed during the outbreak, the NCEI said. Tornadoes of this intensity rarely strike in late autumn or winter months.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor

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