The United States was battered this year by at least 12 natural disasters that each caused at least $1 billion in damages, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said yesterday.
The agency said it was adding a June tornado outbreak in the Midwest and Southeast and record-setting wildfires in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to a list that also includes flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, drought in the Southern Plains and southwestern United States, five previous tornado outbreaks in Southern and central states, and a blizzard.
That count could still rise, because NOAA is still tallying damages from Tropical Storm Lee and a late October snowstorm in the Northeast.
But this year was not an aberration, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said during a speech here yesterday.
The seemingly endless onslaught of floods, droughts, wildfires, windstorms, blizzards and tornadoes that have marked 2011 fit within an ongoing increase in the number of natural disasters recorded in the United States, she said, citing statistics maintained by reinsurer Munich Re.
And at least some of that increase appears to be driven by climate change, Lubchenco said, citing a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"What we are seeing this year is not just an anomalous year, but a harbinger of things to come for at least a subset of those extreme events that we are tallying," the NOAA chief told attendees of the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting.
That puts more pressure on NOAA to improve its ability to better understand and predict those events, at a time when budget pressure in Washington threatens to reduce the agency's ability to carry out those tasks, Lubchenco said.
Demand for weather and climate data rises as budget drops
"The pressure to reduce government spending is intense and intensifying," Lubchenco said. "The irony is that the demand for services provided by agencies like NOAA is at an all-time high and rising. And one reason for this demand is the growing number of record-setting weather events."
Half of the U.S. population lives in areas that were under a heat wave warning or advisory at some point this summer, she said, adding that was just one example from a year of wild weather.
"Budgets and politics threaten our observations, our research, our modeling and our delivery of information and other services," Lubchenco added.
The White House requested $5.5 billion for NOAA in fiscal 2012, but Congress set aside only $4.9 billion for the agency. It has also repeatedly blocked NOAA's proposal to reorganize its existing climate research programs and centers into a new "Climate Service." Lubchenco and other Obama administration leaders have said the plan would help the agency handle a growing demand for information on climate change science and impacts, a message she reiterated yesterday.
"The unfortunate thing is that with more and more extreme events, we are being requested with increasing frequency by emergency managers, by citizens, by the business community, by farmers ... for more information on climate-scale events, which we define as anything beyond 14 days," Lubchenco said. "We will not be able to do it as efficiently or effectively as we would like to because we were not able to reorganize."