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Extreme weather in the U.S. cost 688 lives and $145 billion last year, NOAA says

A volunteer helps set up snacks at a cooling center established  to help vulnerable residents ride out the second dangerous heat wave to grip the Pacific Northwest last summer, on Aug. 11, 2021.
Gillian Flaccus
A volunteer helps set up snacks at a cooling center established to help vulnerable residents ride out the second dangerous heat wave to grip the Pacific Northwest last summer, on Aug. 11, 2021.

Wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and a winter storm and cold wave were among 20 weather and climate disasters in the U.S. last year that cost $1 billion or more, totaling $145 billion and killing 688 people, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In an overview of an annual report released on Monday by NOAA, scientists also said that 2021 ranked as the fourth-warmest year on record in the United States, with December 2021 being the warmest December ever recorded. The full report is due out Thursday.

Adjusted for inflation, 2021 was the third-costliest on record for extreme weather events, after 2017 and 2005, the report said.

The events cited include Hurricane Ida, wildfires and a deadly heat wave in the West, three separate tornado outbreaks in the South and central parts of the U.S., and unusually cold temperatures in Texas that left millions of people without electricity.

"It was a tough year. Climate change has taken a shotgun approach to hazards across the country," said NOAA climatologist and economist Adam Smith, who compiled the report for the agency.

Warning signs continue to mount

The NOAA overview came on the same day that preliminary data showed that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose 6.2% last year compared to 2020, according to the research firm Rhodium Group, placing the Biden administration's goals to combat climate change in jeopardy.

The steep rise in emissions is attributed in part to changes in behavior as coronavirus vaccines became widely available after a year in which lockdowns and other precautions slowed economic activity.

On Tuesday, an analysis published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, indicated that human-caused increase in heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere helped push oceans temperatures to their highest level on record.

"The long-term ocean warming is larger in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans than in other regions and is mainly attributed, via climate model simulations, to an increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations," the analysis concluded. "The anomalous global and regional ocean warming established in this study should be incorporated into climate risk assessments, adaptation, and mitigation."

Billion-dollar disasters keep rising

Scientists have repeatedly warned that warming due to climate change would increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, driving up the cost, and likely the death toll, for such disasters.

In its report, NOAA said its statistics "were taken from a wide variety of sources and represent, to the best of our ability, the estimated total costs of these events — that is, the costs in terms of dollars that would not have been incurred had the event not taken place. Insured and uninsured losses are included in damage estimates."

Adjusted for inflation, the report shows a steady increase in billion-dollar disasters over the decades — with 29 in the 1980s, 53 in the 1990s, 63 in the 2000s, and 123 in the 2010s. The last five years have seen 86 such events, NOAA says.

"I think the biggest lesson is that the past is not a good predictor of the future and to begin planning now for what the climate might be 20, 30 years from now," David Easterling, a climate scientist at NOAA, told NPR last month.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.