Extreme climate and weather-related events, including prolonged droughts, scorching wildfires, severe storms, and floods, are on the rise across the United States. Damaging hurricanes happen more frequently; 100-year floods occur with regularity; wildfires spread to places once thought beyond the reach of flames.
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In today’s world, understanding your exposure to extreme weather, climate, and related events is an increasingly important factor affecting your health and safety.
Extreme climate and weather-related events, including prolonged droughts, scorching wildfires, severe storms, and floods, are on the rise across the United States. Damaging hurricanes happen more frequently; 100-year floods occur with regularity; wildfires spread to places once thought beyond the reach of flames. There is evidence Tornado Alley’s borders are shifting, with an increased frequency of more severe activity near the northern edge and in the southeastern US. Across the country, the number of dangerous heat waves has increased steadily each decade, from an average of two heat waves per year during the 1960s to six per year during the 2010s.
Extreme-weather events once thought impossible are happening everywhere. In February 2021, Texas was blanketed with an ice storm of such severity that more than 100 people died and the financial toll is estimated to have topped $20 billion. Yellowstone National Park temporarily closed during the height of the summer tourist season in 2022 because of historic flooding.
Even in places where extreme, one-off events haven’t yet been a problem, weather patterns are changing. For instance, in New England, climatologists expect rainfall to remain roughly the same overall year-to-year, but more of it is coming in heavy, prolonged downpours that increase flooding.
In just 15 years, (2005-2019), there were 156 separate billion-dollar weather or climate disasters in the U.S that cost a combined $1.16 trillion in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Health and Safety#
Your exposure to extreme weather and its consequences varies considerably depending on location. Generally, summers are getting hotter, droughts longer, winters shorter, snowfall erratic and all manner of storms worse in most places.
Climatologists differentiate between extreme weather and extreme climate events. The former is an event that happens in a particular place and at a time that is unusual or rare, while a climate event is a pattern of extreme weather that persists for some time. Texas’ 2022 ice storm was an extreme weather event. To give an example of the difference, one devastating hurricane is an extreme-weather event, while the increasing tendency of hurricanes to dump more water over land – the result of warming oceans -- is a systemic, climate event.
“The five highest years on record for annual ocean heat content are 2015–2019. Not coincidentally, the five warmest years for the globe have also occurred since 2015,” according to NOAA.
NOAA cites Hurricanes Opal and Ida as examples of the influence of climate change on specific weather events. Opal approached landfall as a Category 1 storm but when it crossed a particularly warm eddy in the Gulf of Mexico it drew energy from the ocean and grew to a Category 4 in less than 14 hours. Similarly, Hurricane Ida, in 2021, gained rapid windspeeds after moving over warmer ocean water, slamming Louisiana and then slowly moving north, spawning tornados and drenching rain all along the way, including in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Ida was blamed for some 50 deaths and cost $65 billion. The property damage stretching across a dozen states made it the most expensive natural disaster of 2021, according to MarketWatch.
Forbes Magazine notes that “nearly every home in the U.S. has exposure to hazard risk,” and that this risk potentially carries a hefty price tag if you are in the path of destruction from an extreme weather event. In 2021 alone, severe weather resulted in $56.92 billion in property damage.
Indeed, in the real estate world, there is a raging debate over whether homeowners should be officially warned if, say, the ocean-front property they want to buy could literally fall off the cliff because of erosion from rising seas, before they pay off a 30-year mortgage.
In fact, there is some evidence that homes in areas most affected by climate change-related weather events are beginning to see lower prices than other, less affected areas. But the research is just beginning so until there is more certainty, it is “buyer beware,” which is why being armed with knowledge is your best protection.
Even if you aren’t worried about extreme weather events, you may want to know some basic weather and climate facts about a location. Thinking of moving East, to Erie, PA, or Buffalo, NY, two affordable cities perched on the Great Lakes? Heard they get lots of lake-effect snow? Just 100 miles apart, their exposure to winter weather events is significantly different.
What you can do#
The good news is there are things you can do to mitigate or adapt to the impacts of extreme weather and climate events. First and foremost is to be armed with information. AreaHub’s models are based on past occurrences and in most places the extremes are getting even more, well, extreme, so knowing what has happened in the last few years can give you an idea of what to watch out for in the future.
For instance, if you are considering buying property near a lake, oceanfront, or creek, is it in a watershed prone to floods? America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is currently revising flood zone maps – some are more than 40 years old – to reflect the new reality and property values are being affected. In some towns, the updated FEMA flood plain includes neighborhoods once considered safe from rising waters. This can cause headaches for existing homeowners who might have to buy insurance or sell their property for less than expected because of new flood concerns. If you are buying just outside the 100-year flood zone plain, be aware that the once-in-century floods are happening more frequently and boundaries are changing.
In Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma and other states in Tornado Alley, some cities and counties – but certainly not all -- have enacted home building codes for newer construction to protect against the destructive winds from twisters. Oklahoma, for example, adopted codes in 2012, which have regularly been updated, but it’s up to local jurisdictions to enforce them. Not all do. Before you buy a home or locate a business in a tornado-prone location check local building codes to see if your desired property is up to current codes.
In some areas, where winter storms are more volatile and dangerous, buying a generator to protect against power outages is an increasingly popular option.
Knowing your neighborhood’s risk factors – and the emergency and safety infrastructure – will help protect your family, business, property and assets. Some states are building additional emergency shelters and others have emergency kits available for homeowners. Nearly all states have advice for protecting your health and welfare from damaging weather-related events. For example, Oklahoma’s website suggests building or retrofitting a room inside a home to withstand tornados, while California’s advises residents about what to put in a wildfire emergency kit.
AreaHub’s Knowledge Center is updated regularly and provides information drawing upon scientific studies and sources.
- IPCC Sixth Assessment Report https://www.ipcc.ch/
- Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) https://www.fema.gov/
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) https://www.noaa.gov/climate
- Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC) https://www.nrcc.cornell.edu/
- National Public Radio www.npr.org
- New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/
- Popular Science https://www.popsci.com/environment/climate-change-tornado/
- MarketWatch https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-10-most-expensive-climate-change-disasters-of-2021-cost-170-billion-and-this-u-s-storm-was-no-1-11640631670
- Oklahoma.gov https://www.ok.gov
- California.gov www.CA.gov
- Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/brendarichardson/2022/02/17/catastrophe-report-warns-of-the-high-price-tag-of-damage-from-extreme-weather-events/?sh=372699d66ef2