Hurricane Ida, the ninth named storm in another Atlantic season for the books, clobbered New Orleans and much of Louisiana with deadly 150-mile-per-hour winds in the final week of August. But it was far from done.
Ida then spun north, retaining plenty of punch to flood New York’s subway system, kick up seven tornadoes in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and turn inland Philadelphia’s freeways into canals. Ida cost $65 billion, according to some measures, and 115 lives; including 50 deaths in the less-suspecting Northeast alone. The property damage made it the most expensive natural disaster of 2021. Floods in Europe came second at $43 billion.
In all, the top 10 natural disasters totaled at least $170 billion, according to insurance data, news reports and other sources compiled by U.K. nonprofit Christian Aid.
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This year marked a 13% rise in financial costs from global natural disasters over 2020. The Christian Aid report, which is compiled each year, largely tracks insured costs and may not account for all economic loss.
Notably, 2021 kicked off with an oddity.
Typically temperate Texas suffered under a February ice storm that strained its wind- and natural gas-powered independent electric utility. Citizens hunkered down in darkened, freezing homes — at least those lucky enough to have shelter. More than 111 people died in the state, largely from hypothermia. The financial toll topped $20 billion, based on insurance data. Local reports said the overall impact could have reached $200 billion.
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Ida’s cost, the number of states impacted and its push inland made it memorable. But it was just one storm within another Atlantic hurricane season that quickly blew through the list of given names that are historically used to distinguish the events. It’s the first time hurricane forecasters have used up the World Meteorological Organization’s initial list of names in two consecutive years: 2020 and 2021.
Steve Bowen, meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight at insurer Aon, said 2021 is expected to be the sixth time that global natural catastrophes have crossed the $100 billion insured loss threshold. All six times took place since 2011, and 2021 will be the fourth in five years.
In its own assessment issued earlier in December, the globe’s largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, estimated that natural catastrophes and extreme weather events caused around $250 billion in damage over the past year. That marked a 24% increase over last year. The cost to the insurance industry alone was the fourth highest since 1970, Swiss Re said.
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Natural disasters are not new, of course, but their frequency, intensity and their cost in property damage to both developed and developing nations as population numbers rise and cluster in cities and on coasts has been increasingly linked to climate change.
For instance, warming oceans mean that hurricanes suck up and carry more water deeper inland and for longer, bringing devastating flooding. To the benefit of citizens and buildings, construction and warning systems have improved. But the range of disasters is also taxing on resources: heat, cold, floods, wildfires, drought have all made for memorable 2021 headlines.
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It didn’t crack the top 10 for costs, but unprecedented heat, drought, and as a result, fires, in the Western U.S. and Canada counted among the more shocking realizations of 2021.
At the end of June and in the early days of July, a heatwave brought record-breaking temperatures to some parts of western North America. It set a Canadian temperature record of 49.6ºC, well above the previous national record of 45ºC. Lytton, the village where the record was set, was completely destroyed a few days later in a wildfire.
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Read more from MarketWatch on the Western U.S. drought.
The Christian Aid report makes the point that it is difficult to tabulate personal and property loss in nations that are underinsured or struggle to keep such records. Accordingly, the group highlighted the 2021 devastation, though without accurate dollar amounts, linked to drought in Africa and Latin America and floods in South Sudan.
The high-profile U.N. climate summit in Glasgow in November made headway in key areas, including agreement in cutting potent methane gases, which leak from natural gas production
among other sources. Methane doesn’t last as long as atmosphere-warming carbon emissions, but its shorter time in the air can be even more damaging. The Glasgow conference, known as Conference of Parties, or COP26, can also boast that more private-sector interests, especially from wealthy nations, continue to join the global push to slow the Earth’s warming.
Still, pressure remains on the world’s largest economies to do more to curb fossil-fuel burning. The latest U.N. emissions-gap report suggested that the national climate pledges that make up the Paris Agreement were not currently on track to ensure global heating is kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the Paris pact laid out.
What’s more, rich nations have been pushed, and have responded slowly, to help finance the devastation in less-wealthy economies that tend to provide the bulk of natural resources that power the globe, and yet produce fractions of the pollution that their wealthier counterparts spew.
“One glaring omission from the outcome in Glasgow was a fund to deal with the permanent loss and damage caused by climate change,” Christian Aid said in its report summing up the costly events. “This is one issue which will need to be addressed at COP27 in Egypt in 2022.”