2021 Recorded Fewer Costly Weather Disasters But More Fatalities

Posted: January 14, 2022 4:01 pm

While the U.S. recorded fewer weather disasters costing one billion dollars or more in 2021 compared to the previous year, last year’s fatalities due to weather were three times as higher than in the record-breaking year 2020.

2021 Weather Event Fatalities Break 10-Year Record

Although most people will remember the killer tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires that distinguished the weather headlines for 2021, it was the record heat that was responsible for the most deaths last year. According to recent data released on Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2021 was the fourth-warmest year on the record books for the country.

With 688 deaths reported as a result of extreme weather, the year 2021 marked the most weather-related fatalities since 2011 while taking sixth place as the deadliest year on record. The number of weather disasters measuring over one billion dollars in damage was down slightly from 22 to 20 events.

However, while there was a small decrease in disasters that caused over one billion dollars in damage, the total amount of damage as a result of the weather was higher overall. Estimates from NOAA put this figure at about $145 billion, making it the third-costliest year ever on record in the U.S.

Year Kicks Off with Costly Texas Winter Storm

The costly year began with an unseasonable winter storm and cold snap that moved through Texas before heading to the other areas of the southern U.S. By the time the mid-February event was over, it had become the most expensive winter storm on the record books, blowing past the legendary Storm of the Century in March of 1993. The weather system damage totaled about $24 billion and was responsible for over 200 deaths.

Hurricane Damage Astronomical Once Again

Like 2020, damage at the hands of hurricanes also rang up a significant amount of monetary costs. Also like 2020, the year 2021 brought a significant amount of hurricane damage to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Hurricane Ida carried the distinction of being the year’s most expensive disaster, ringing in at $75 billion in damages and causing at least 96 fatalities.

After striking coastal Louisiana, the Category 4 hurricane traveled through the Tennessee Valley and into the mid-Atlantic before arriving in the Northeast as a powerful tropical rainstorm. The system was blamed for record amounts of flash flooding in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey that led to dozens of deaths.

Heat and Wildfires Out West

While the West Coast was spared the damage caused by hurricanes, it had its fair share of extreme weather events throughout the summer of 2021. A historic heatwave at the end of June in the Pacific Northwest took the top of the list as the deadliest weather event of the year. 229 people were reported dead as a result of the unprecedented hot temperatures that set up over southern British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon, and Northern California.

In Portland, the mercury hit 116 degrees, breaking an all-time high for the Rose City. Seattle also broke an all-time record when it hit 108 degrees. Damage from this heatwave was estimated to be around $8.9 billion.

The West Coast was also at the mercy of another destructive wildfire season. Over 7.1 million acres burned throughout the region, totaling $17.6 billion in damage. There were also at least 46 deaths attributed to wildfires. The most significant fire of the season was the Dixie Fire, the second-largest blaze in California state history.

Deadly Tornadoes

It was a busy year for tornado watchers with outbreaks occurring regularly, even into December. The tornado season kicked off in earnest in late March when two separate outbreaks in the Tennessee Valley triggered at least 65 twisters, killing 14 people and causing about $1.8 billion in damage. Flash flooding plagued the Nashville area as a result of the severe weather.

Another outbreak caused four deaths and totaled $1.3 billion in damage in early May.

What was most surprising was a rare December tornado outbreak that produced two EF4 twisters that swept across Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. The outbreak was responsible for 93 deaths with 70 of these happening in Kentucky alone. Nearly 70 tornadoes were reported as a part of this outbreak along with $3.9 billion in damage.

Just a few days later, another outbreak hit the Midwest, producing the first ever December derecho on record in the U.S. The state of Minnesota also recorded the first December twister since 1950. There were 117 tornadoes recorded in one day, making it the largest outbreak in December in history. The outbreak was blamed for one fatality and $1.9 billion in damages.

Severe Weather Events on the Rise

The number of national disasters measuring over $1 billion damage has increased substantially over the last few decades. During the 1980s, an average of 2.9 billion-dollar disasters were on record each year. This number jumped to an average of 6.3 by the 2000s. By the last five years, this number was averaging 17.2 disasters costing $1 billion or more.

Climate experts point to the increase in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions for the rapid trajectory of these figures.

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