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US saw 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2019, second-hottest year ever

Last year was the second-warmest the world has ever seen.

Major natural disasters, many related to rising global temperatures, cost $45 billion in direct losses in the US alone.

Those are the findings of a joint report about the 2019 global climate that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released on Wednesday. The data shows that last year’s record temperatures were second only to 2016’s.

“The decade that just ended is clearly the warmest decade on record,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in a press release. “Every decade since the 1960s clearly has been warmer than the one before.”

The cause is well established: Fossil fuels contain high concentrations of carbon, so when we burn them for energy, they release carbon dioxide gas (CO2) into the atmosphere. That gas traps the sun’s heat, raising average temperatures across the globe.

“It doesn’t really matter which way you cut it,” Schmidt said in a press conference. “The fact is that the planet is warming.”

14 disasters in the US caused over $1 billion in damage each

arkansas river flood

A neighborhood engulfed in the flood waters of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith, Arkansas, May 30, 2019.

Drone Base/Reuters

In addition to global temperatures, NOAA tracks weather and climate events that result in over $1 billion in losses. The agency calls these “billion-dollar disasters.”

In 2019, the US saw 14 of these events, at a total cost of $45 billion.

Floods were the most expensive, accounting for $20 billion of that total. The damage primarily came from three flooding events along the basins of the Missouri River, Mississippi River, and Arkansas River.

All three of those billion-dollar floods were triggered by heavy rainfall.

Across the US, 2019 was the second-wettest year on record.

“A warmer atmosphere is a thirstier atmosphere,” Deke Arndt, NOAA’s chief of global monitoring, said in the press conference.

rainfall diner en blanc

Attendees begin to evacuate as heavy rain falls at the 2019 NYC Diner en Blanc dining event in New York, July 17, 2019.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

That’s because warmer air can carry more moisture. In dry areas, that means warmer air sucks more moisture out of the soil, drying out vegetation and raising the risk of wildfires. In wetter areas like New England, it means that warm weather systems hold — and dump — more rain.

“We are definitely seeing trends in the instances of big rain,” Arndt said. “We’re seeing the largest events getting larger. We’re also seeing the larger events more responsible for a larger portion of the annual rainfall budget.”

Other billion-dollar disasters last year included Tropical Storm Imelda, Hurricane Dorian, and wildfires across California and Alaska.

Wildfires raged across Alaska in the state’s warmest year ever

alaska fires

NASA’s Aqua satellite captured thick wildfire smoke swirling over Alaska on July 8, 2019.

Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory

The high US temperatures were most pronounced in Alaska, which saw its hottest year ever.

Climate scientists had previously observed that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world; but the new data suggests that could be a severe underestimate.

“It looks like it’s now much closer to three times as fast,” Schmidt said. “Eventually that will happen in the Antarctic as well.”

Amid the hot, dry conditions, unprecedented wildfires spread across the Arctic circle in 2019. Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources had to extend the state’s fire season by a month as hundreds of blazes continued raging past the normal expiration date. 

alaska wildfire

The Rainbow 2 Fire burns near Delta Creek, Alaska, June 29, 2019.

Alaska Division of Forestry/Handout via Reuters

Some blazes even broke out within the Anchorage city limits. The city declared an “extreme drought” in August 2019 for the first time in the two-decade history of the US Drought Monitor.

“I’ve been here 40 years, and this is the most extreme fire condition here that I can remember,” John See, a wildfire expert at the Anchorage Fire Department, told Reuters.

In June alone, Arctic wildfires released 50 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — the equivalent of Sweden’s total annual emissions. That’s more carbon than Arctic fires released during every June from 2010 to 2018 combined, according to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). The July wildfires released another 79 megatons of CO2.

The group said these were the longest-lived Arctic wildfires ever recorded.

alaska wildfire

Firefighters from the Chugach National Forest battle the Swan Lake Fire near Cooper Landing, Alaska, August 28, 2019.

Chugach National Forest/Handout via Reuters

Fires in Alaska and Siberia also deposited soot on the Greenland ice sheet, which darkened the surface and caused it to absorb more heat, contributing to its record melting over the summer.

The 2020s will probably be even warmer

NASA and NOAA scientists sometimes model what the climate would look like without human activity, using computer simulations to remove the effects of fossil fuels, agriculture, and forest clear-cutting. 

“When we do that and we estimate what temperature patterns would be just because of those [natural forces], we end up with a massive discrepancy,” Schmidt said. “That tells us that the natural forcings are not capable of explaining the trends that we’ve seen since the 19th century.”

In the next decade, these climate trends are expected to get worse

carbon emissions

Smoke rises from the chimneys of a power plant in Shanghai, China, December 5, 2009.
Reuters/Aly Song

Even if all countries stick to the voluntary goals set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the world would still emit the equivalent of 52 to 58 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. (This is measured as an “equivalent” in order to factor in other greenhouse gases, like methane, which is 84 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.)

So far, most countries are not on track anyway.

“It would be almost certain that the decade will be warmer than the previous, almost certain that we will break at least one annual record in the process,” Arndt said.

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