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Don Paul: When it was '17, it was a very bad year

Statistics compiled by government agencies, economists and insurance companies confirm 2017 was the most expensive weather-related disaster year in North American history. That’s apart from the tragic large loss of life which continues to mount in Puerto Rico as well as confirmed deaths elsewhere in the U.S. and the Virgin Islands related to other hurricanes, tornadoes, lightning, cold, floods, wildfires and excessive heat in the southwest.

An article in The Atlantic points to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s designation of 2017 as the second most extreme weather year in U.S. history when all impacts are combined. Economists are finding total costs may be virtually immeasurable.

Speaking of immeasurable, there is the conundrum posed by any attempt to calculate how much of the damage can be tied to climate change in more precise terms. Some events are easier to tie directly to global warming. (And, yes, I’m aware of the irony of being under a blizzard warning while I write this.) “King tides” which cause damaging flooding in and near Miami are directly linked to rising sea levels caused by warming oceans and melting freshwater ice. This article from the Miami New Times outlines a recent event following but unrelated to Hurricane Irma.

The same rising sea levels also increase the damage potential of every storm surge and wave action from tropical cyclones and powerful nor’easters in the winter.

In the midst of this shockingly harsh cold wave, we still know there were three times more record high temps than record lows across the United States this past year. This ratio has been the case for many years and is also directly tied to a warming climate. The predicted more frequent and longer droughts in the southwest  in 1980s climate models have been realized, resulting in worsening wildfire seasons over the decades. To a more casual observer in the east, the abundant rain and snow of last winter in California appeared to be just what the doctor ordered, and it was-- for water reserves. But when that drought ended, it also allowed a super lush re-growth of brush and shrubbery across hundreds of thousands of what had been parched acreage. As the dry season built, vast expanses of fuel for wildfire became available, making the after-the-drought-ends wildfire season the worst of all. The dry season has extended well into what should be the wet season. At least we are now seeing signs some rain may reach southern California by mid-month.

Warming climate aside, the sheer property damage costs this year are staggering. Puerto Rico’s government has requested $95 billion to rebuild the electrical grid, infrastructure and home, with $85 billion in property insurance claims on file. Even now, nearly half of Puerto Rico’s population is without electricity. According to The Atlantic, credit-rating agency Moody’s has put lost economic output for Puerto Rico at $40 billion and $55 billion in property damage on an island with a GDP of $100 billion. Who knows how long it will take for the tourism markets to recover in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico? The Department of Commerce estimates property damage from Harvey and Irma in southeast Texas and west Florida at $131 billion.

Damage estimates from the California wildfires, which killed 44, are well beyond $10 billion in property losses, but estimates for total costs are nowhere near complete.

Nationally, NOAA calculates there were 15 weather events which resulted in at least $1 billion, the second most since 1980.

Of course, losses per disaster will continue to skyrocket as rebuilding costs continue to skyrocket. It’s likely fewer insurers are going to be able to stay in the business of insuring property due to the enormous payouts being made. Millions continue to migrate to or stay in high risk coastal zones and river flood plains. It’s a reasonable assumption we have many very bad weather years to come for the foreseeable future.

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