18 billion-dollar disasters killed nearly 500 people last year, NOAA says

Hurricane Ian, the mega-drought in the west and a massive snowstorm across much of the country in December were just some of the 18 billion-dollar disasters in the United States in 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. 

That's the third most billion-dollar disasters on record, behind 2020 and 2021, said Rick Spinrad, administrator of the NOAA, during a Tuesday briefing on the nation's weather statistics for last year. 

"It is a reality that regardless of where you are in the country, where you call home, you've likely experienced a high-impact weather event firsthand," Spinrad said.

"Climate change is creating more and more intense extreme events that cause significant damage, and often (sets) off cascading hazards, like intense drought followed by devastating wildfires, followed by dangerous flooding and mudslides, as we've seen for example as a consequence of the atmospheric rivers in California right now."

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Costs of weather-related disasters mount

At least 474 deaths were reported last year as a result of the billion-dollar disasters, Spinrad said.

With a total cost of $165 billion, the 18 disasters made it the third most costly year on record behind 2017 and 2005, the years when Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the U.S.

Hurricane Ian was the costliest disaster of 2022, with estimated damages so far at $112.9 billion.

Over the past seven years, 122 billion-dollar disasters have killed at least 5,000 people, and cost more than $1 trillion in damages. Spinrad said the disasters are a "wake up call that we must build our resiliency to these types of events to mitigate the damage and the loss of life."

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Several factors are driving the increase in costs in the U.S. and globally, Spinrad said, quoting Swiss Re, an international reinsurance company. 

"Urban development, wealth accumulation in disaster-prone areas, inflation and climate change are factors at play turning extreme weather into ever-rising natural catastrophe losses."

How did the weather in 2022 compare to previous years? 

The average annual temperature in the contiguous U.S. last year was 53.4 degrees, said Karen Gleason, a scientist with NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. That was roughly 1.4 degrees above the 20th century average, ranking it the 18th warmest year on record.

Gleason said 2022 also was: 

  • The 27th driest year on record overall. 
  • The fourth driest year on record in Nebraska.
  • The ninth driest in California, thanks to wetter than average conditions during the past two months.
  • Alaska's 16th warmest year and fourth wettest year.
  • An above average year for tornadoes, with 1,331.

Europe records second warmest year on record

Globally, 2022 was the fifth warmest, according to data released Tuesday by the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service. The past eight years have been the warmest on record. 

In Europe, 2022 was the second warmest on record, while the summer was the hottest on record. A lack of rainfall combined with high temperatures and other factors, leading to widespread drought conditions. 

The EU also pointed out that atmospheric carbon dioxide increased at a similar rate to recent years, but methane concentrations increased more than average. 

What were the 2022 billion-dollar disasters in the US? 

  • A winter storm/cold wave across the central and eastern U.S.
  • Wildfires across the western U.S. and Alaska.
  • The lingering drought and heat wave across the western and central U.S. 
  • Flooding in Missouri and Kentucky. 
  • Two tornado outbreaks across the southern and southeastern U.S. The 293 tornadoes in March were more than triple the average. 
  • Three tropical cyclones – the hurricanes Fiona, Ian and Nicole. 
  • Nine severe weather/hail events across the country.

Graphic: Billion-dollar disasters over time

Drought continues in US

Significant drought was seen across the contiguous 48 states for the second year in a row, with a minimum extent of 44% on Sept. 6, Gleason said.

In total, damages from the drought and heat waves this year are estimated at $22.2 billion, and blamed for at least 136 deaths.

The drought reached its maximum coverage – 63% – on Oct. 25, she said. That was the largest area in drought since 2012. 

At least 40% of the contiguous 48 states, or more, has been in drought for 119 weeks.

Dig Deeper

Wildfires in 2022:Another above-average wildfire season. How climate change is making fires harder to predict and fight.

Hurricanes:Hurricane season ends with Ian as deadliest US storm: at least 144 dead. Why are predictable storms still killing so many people?

California drought 2022Two water districts eye hefty Colorado River cuts

Graphic: 2022 by the numbers

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environment issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at dpulver@gannett.com or at @dinahvp on Twitter.