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November 14, 2011 

2011 Breaks Records for Extreme Weather Damage

Climate Change Slated to Make Some Kinds of Extreme Weather Worse in the Future

2011 has been an incredible year of climate extremes for the United States.

On Monday, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) hosted a telephone press conference to discuss links between climate change and extreme weather and consequences for businesses and local communities. Meanwhile, on Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to release a report on climate change and weather extremes and ways that countries can build resilience.

So far, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the nation’s extreme weather score-keeper, has recorded 10 disasters between January and August that each inflicted more than $1 billion in damage. Recent events could drive the 2011 total to a record-breaking 14 weather disasters, adding up to an estimated $53 billion in costs, according to a preliminary analysis by Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist at Weather Underground.

“Mother Nature has made it abundantly clear this year the gloves are off,” he said. “And, with climate change likely to boost the destructive power of storms, heat waves and droughts, we can expect an increasing number of these bare-knuckle years in the decades to come.”

Insurers often are the ones who cover the costs of weather disasters and they’re becoming increasingly interested in how risk from climate change alter the insurance landscape, according to Rowan Douglas, Chairman of Willis Research Network and CEO of Willis Analytics, both part of Willis Group Holdings, a U.K.-based global insurance brokerage.

“There is an emerging and very important link developing between climate science and finance and relevant areas of financial regulation,” he said. “And it’s being driven increasingly by the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.”

Douglas said many insurance companies are required to withstand losses from events that might occur every 100 to 200 years. As climate change shifts the frequency and intensity of weather extremes, the amount of money insurance companies will need to have on hand is likely to shift, he said.

Local governments, meanwhile, bear the brunt of extreme weather events. Brian Holland, Climate Program Director for ICLEI -- Local Governments for Sustainability shared the results of a recent survey his organization conducted in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among ICELI’s 298 members. The survey found that 59 percent said they are engaged in some form of climate preparedness work and that reducing impacts from hazardous weather was among their top reasons for doing so.

“Cities and counties are increasingly engaged in preparing for climate change,” he said. “Many are approaching it from the angle of responding to extreme weather. Despite some real challenges in identifying resources to do climate adaptation, we expect to see continued growth in the number of communities attempting to build resilience to climate change and extreme weather.”

Holland noted several preparedness measures underway: in Lewes, Delaware, the city council unanimously adopted a hazard plan for dealing with coastal storms that take climate change into account; several states and cities have joined a Western Adaptation Alliance, which will grapple with climate change and water availability; and ICLEI is working with San Diego officials to respond to sea level rise.

Brenda Ekwurzel, a UCS climate scientist, emphasized the varying levels of scientific certainty when it comes to links between extreme weather and climate change. “In some cases, the links between extreme weather and climate change are crystal clear,” she said. “In other cases, the picture is murkier.” Ekwurzel said scientist see the strongest links to extreme heat and shifts in precipitation away from lighter and toward heavier events, meaning longer periods of drought punctuated by heavy flooding.

Ekwurzel noted that the United States is slated to release its next National Climate Assessment in 2013. The assessment is designed to give policymakers the information they need to successfully prepare for a changing climate. At the same time, NOAA wants to create a National Climate Service -- modeled on its successful National Weather Service -- to provide critical climate information to decision makers. The NOAA proposal was partially endorsed this year by the Senate, which approved about half the funding the White House requested for a National Climate Service. But the House voted not to fund the service. [Update: On Tuesday, a conference committee decided not to provide funding for the National Climate Service in 2011.]

UCS has prepared a detailed backgrounder that examines the science behind extremes that hit the United States particularly hard this year: extreme heat, drought and heavy precipitation and flooding. The backgrounder also details policy developments related to the National Climate Assessment and National Climate Service.


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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