A Record Year for Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters

With 2011 not even three-quarters complete, the year is shaping up as one of the costliest ever in terms of weather disasters.

So far, there have been 10 separate natural disasters with economic losses of $1 billion or more, according to Chris Vaccaro, spokesman for the National Weather Service. That’s the most since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking the cost of weather disasters in 1980.

There have been costlier years than 2011, mostly due to single extraordinary disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But this already ranks among the top 25 percent all time, said Vaccaro, and hurricane season isn’t even half over.

There are myriad explanations for this year’s record number of billion-dollar weather disasters – from a blizzard that stretched from late January to after Groundhog Day, to an outbreak of more 100 tornadoes in April, to flooding in spring and summer, to Hurricane Irene last month and the Texas wildfires this month.

Climatologists see global warming as the culprit. Meteorologists suggest that La Nina may have something to do with it. Still others suggest it’s just the natural variability of the weather.

Jeff Masters, co-founder of and director of meteorology for Weather Underground, comes down on the side of warming. At a news conference Wednesday, he explained that a “warmer atmosphere has more energy to power storms.” He warned that, “Years like 2011 may become the new normal in the United States in coming decades.”

That does not bode well for the U.S. economy. Weather disasters have caused more than $40 billion in losses so far this year. And it’s not inconceivable that those losses could grow to nearly twice as much by the time hurricane season is over.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties promised to fast-track $6 billion disaster relief legislation, making federal assistance available to areas of the country hit by weather or other disasters in recent weeks.