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Top Ten Global Weather/Climate Events of 2017

A Year of Landfalls (Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria) and Firestorms (California)

December 29, 2017

In 2017, the atmosphere seemed to have it in for the United States. Globally, the lion’s share of destruction from each of the world’s four costliest weather-related disasters occurred within U.S. states and territories, and each one involved either hurricanes or wildfires. Through September, NOAA tallied 15 U.S weather disasters in 2017 with a cost of at least $1 billion, and the December wildfires in Southern California may well add another billion-dollar disaster to the total. This would tie 2017 with 2011 for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in any year in U.S. history.

Granted, the U.S. is a meteorological crossroads that’s renowned for getting virtually every type of meteorological mayhem, but it’s unusual for the nation to have such a lopsided share of the global toll from a year’s worth of weather/climate disasters. One preliminary damage assessment put the U.S. damage from Maria, Harvey, and Irma at $207 billion, with another $25 billion in non-U.S. damage. Thus, our picks below for the planet’s highest-impact weather and climate events of 2017 are very U.S.-centric.

Three events tied for #1 in 2017: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria

The most hellacious series of Atlantic hurricanes since 2005 produced catastrophic damage in a number of Caribbean nations as well as Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the U.S. mainland. One reason: at the peak of hurricane season, sea-surface temperatures were at near-record warm levels across most of the tropical Atlantic. Moreover, upper-level winds (with an assist from La Niña) were unusually supportive for allowing hurricanes to thrive (bringing low wind shear), and steering currents favored trajectories toward land, with a grand total of 23 landfalls for the year. The period from late August to early October saw a nearly unbroken string of Atlantic hurricanes in progress, and September produced the largest amount of accumulated cyclone energy (ACE) of any month on record.


Top Ten Global Weather/Climate Events of 2017
Figure 1. First-light GOES-16 image of Hurricane Maria taken at 7:15 am EDT September 20, 2017, just after the hurricane had made landfall in Puerto Rico as a top-end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds. Maria’s eye was obscured by clouds due to interactions with land. Image credit: NOAA/RAMMB.

1. Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria hit the island of Dominica in the Caribbean as a Category 5 hurricane with 160 mph winds, then powered through the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a top-end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, causing catastrophic damage and at least 47 deaths outside of Puerto Rico. The death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico is likely to top 1,000 when indirect deaths that occurred in the weeks and months after Maria’s passage are fully taken into account. This would make Maria only the second hurricane since 1928, along with Katrina of 2005, to have caused at least 1,000 deaths in the U.S. or its territories. Total damage across the Caribbean from Maria has not yet been fully tallied, but some estimates are in excess of $100 billion (insured plus uninsured damage), which would make Maria more costly than any hurricane except Hurricane Katrina ($161 billion in damage in 2005). Overall, it appears that Maria will be the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 2005’s Stan, which took more than 1,500 lives in Guatemala and another 150+ in neighboring countries.

Maria also became a political flash point, as it highlighted Puerto Rico’s fragile infrastructure and the lack of urgency one might see in recovery efforts for a similar disaster in a U.S. state versus a territory. More than a million residents still lacked power as of late December. According to New York Times reporter Frances Robles, the U.S. Corps of Engineers estimates that power will not be fully restored to rural parts of Puerto Rico until the end of May—a full eight months after Maria.


Top Ten Global Weather/Climate Events of 2017
Figure 2. Storm-total rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, August 24 – 31, 2017. Harvey dumped over 40” (yellow colors) in Houston, with isolated amounts in excess of 50” (pink colors) south of Houston and northwest of Port Arthur. Image credit: NOAA.

Tied for #1: Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey was spectacular in terms of rainfall, as a result of its slow movement near the southeast Texas coast following landfall at Category 4 strength just north of Corpus Christi. At least 40” of rain fell across a gigantic area from Houston to Port Arthur—larger than the entire state of Delaware. The storm total of 60.58” at Nederland, TX, was the heaviest single amount ever recorded from a tropical cyclone or its remnants in the U.S. One analysis found that Houston could expect Harvey-like rains only about once every 2000 years—but that climate change is already making such rains far more likely.

Harvey caused at least 84 direct and indirect deaths, primarily from massive flooding across southeast Texas, including many places outside the 100-year flood plain. The total cost of Harvey (including insured and noninsured losses) was estimated by insurance broker Aon Benfield at $90 billion. Among U.S. hurricanes, this comes in behind only the $161 billion in total damage from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, as estimated by NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Hurricane Maria may exceed Harvey’s damage once the final numbers are in, though.


Top Ten Global Weather/Climate Events of 2017
Figure 3. Recently planted palm trees lie across a road in Miami Beach, FL, on Sunday, September 10, 2017, due to Hurricane Irma’s landfall. Image credit: Wilfredo Lee/AP.

Also tied for #1: Hurricane Irma

Irma was neither the deadliest or most destructive Atlantic hurricane of 2017—but in most other years, it would have been an epic disaster all its own. Irma churned across or near several Caribbean islands as a Category 5 storm packing 185 mph winds, the strongest winds of any tropical cyclone on Earth this year. Irma made destructive landfalls in Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Martin, Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, The Bahamas, and Cuba, as well as the United States. Before it moved up the west coast of Florida, Irma angled just far enough leftward to rake the north coast of Cuba, a shift that resulted in 10 deaths and $2.1 billion in damage there. Had Irma not been disrupted by its encounter with Cuba, it might have produced far greater destruction in Florida. All told, Irma took 124 lives and wreaked an estimated $50 billion in total damage along its path, according to Aon Benfield.


Top Ten Global Weather/Climate Events of 2017
Figure 4. Christmas decorations illuminate a house in Carpinteria, Calif., as the growing Thomas Fire advances toward Santa Barbara County seaside communities on December 10, 2017. Image credit: David McNew/Getty Images.

4.  California wildfires (October-December)

After an unusually slow start to the U.S. fire season caused by a wet winter, the fire season of 2017 put on an intense blitz of the Western U.S., burning 9.6 million acres–the third highest total since accurate records began in 1960, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The last three months of the year brought two devastating clusters of wildfire to California. The stage for disaster was set by a near-record wet winter in 2016–17, which led to a bumper crop of fire-vulnerable shrubs and grasses. California’s hottest summer on record eventually left the fresh vegetation tinder-dry, and cool-season rains were unusually slow to return to the state.

The first of the year’s two firestorms burst into being on the night of October 8-9, when a fierce round of hot, dry winds gusting to more than 60 mph swept through the North Bay Hills of California. The strong winds tossed embers well ahead of the fire line, leading to extremely rapid fire spread. Many residents had only a few scant minutes to evacuate. The Tubbs Fire pushed from the urban/wildland interface well into the city of Santa Rosa, scorching more than 36,000 acres and consuming 5,643 structures in all—almost twice the structural toll of any other fire in Cal Fire records. At least 44 people died as a direct result of the October fires, the largest U.S. death toll from a wildfire event in nearly 100 years.

In December, persistent offshore Santa Ana winds led to the worst late-season fires in California history across the coastal hills from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The biggest and most destructive was the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The Thomas Fire became the largest in reliable state history on December 22 when its coverage reached 273,400 acres, topping 2003’s Cedar Fire (273,246 acres). The Thomas Fire consumed at least 1,063 structures, with hundreds of other buildings destroyed in five other major wildfires across the region. The Santa Ana winds arrived during a normal climatological peak, but their effects were intensified by the extensive dried-out vegetation and by the near-record warm, dry conditions that prevailed across Southern California throughout the autumn and into December.


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  1. All hype.

    When there are wet winters in California, it produce substantial under growth brush unlike dry winters. Thus fuel is abundant for the typical dry summers of California.

    So, we’ve had 5 CAT3(?) hurricanes landfall and cause major damages in 12 years. That’s 2 a year. 2005 had 4 of them, including the two worst, Katrina, and Wilma. Hurricanes are expensive, and getting more so because so many people live and rebuild in the worst areas for hurricane damage, mostly courtesy of the US government(taxpayers).

    That kind of summarizes the solutions- don’t build in flood plains, don’t allow building that were total losses to rebuild on location at all, and start increasing flood insurance cost to at least break even over the next 10 or so years.

    Hurricane Harvey barely was CAT 3 at landfall and dropped rapidly to a tropical storm, while still pulling moisture from the Gulf. The rainfall RATES for Harvey were nothing special. The major cause of the flooding was the storm stalled over the Houston watershed for three days, all the while dropping rain at typical hurricane rates around 2in/hr, 24in/day.

    Ridiculous levels of stupidity abound within the man-made-global warming worship clique. Jeff Masters being ..well …a master of this sort of quackery which is surfacing more and more. Nothing personal, just a fact.

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