2020: Another Record-Breaking Year for Climate Change

Climate Advisory - Lisa Churchill

A year like no other…

2020 witnessed the greatest number of billion-dollar climate-related disasters recorded in one year in the United States: twenty-two events that resulted in a billion dollars or more of damage.  The previous record of sixteen events occurred in 2011 and 2017. 


It was also a record year for hurricanes in 2020, including the number of storms produced, the number that made landfall and the number of major hurricanes (Category 3 or higher) within that mix.   2020 produced thirty named storms and 6 major hurricanes (Laura, Teddy, Delta, Epsilon, Eta and Iota), with 11 of those storms making landfall.  To put that in perspective, a more typical year would see twelve named storms, 6 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes.  For a sobering but excellent overview of this year’s past hurricane, see the summary provided by the Insurance Information Institute.


The Congressional Research Center defines wildfires as “unplanned and unwanted fires, including lightning-caused fires, unauthorized human-caused fires, and escaped prescribed fire projects.” Drawing upon data reported from the National Interagency Fire Center, 2020 was not a record holder in terms of the number of fires, but it was with respect to the number of acres burned – 10.27 million acres in all.  In addition, the large volumes of smoke associated with these fires created significant air quality and public health concerns for large segments of western US populations.  Images shared by NASA’s Earth Observatory: A Wall of Smoke on the U.S. West Coast and East Troublesome Fire Spread , demonstrate the extent and intensity of those plumes.

Inland Events – tornadoes, severe thunderstorms and derechos

Despite an intensive start to the tornado season earlier in the year, there were fewer overall tornadoes (1218 versus 1520) than in 2019.  However, those that did hit in March and April were intense and resulted in significant physical damage, and dozens of deaths. 

Iowa and surrounding areas experienced a significant high-wind storm event, known as a derecho, which produced wind gusts of 110 to 140 mph. Those values are comparable to the speeds observed in an EF3 tornado or Category 3 hurricane.  The damage to infrastructure and crops was extensive and has been estimated at $ 7.5 billion. According to the Capital Weather Gang at the Washington Post: “no single thunderstorm event in modern times – not even a tornado – has wrought as much economic devastation…”

Path of August 10th derecho and associated extreme weather phenomena (Source: USDA)

2020 Temperatures

And, in keeping with the intensity of this year, NOAA has announced that 2020 ranks as the second hottest year on record, being surpassed only by the record set in 2016. Up until this year, 2019 had been in second place.  Said another way, the top three hottest years on record (2016, 2020, 2019) have all occurred within the last four years.

How much of this can be directly attributed to climate change?

It has always been a challenge to quantify climate change’s role in impacting the frequency or severity of these events.  However, the science around that is advancing, and recent work from Stanford has been able to offer insights with respect to precipitation-based flooding.  Looking across the past 30 years, Frances Davenport and her colleagues determined that 36% of all financial impacts associated with extreme precipitation events could be directly attributed to climate change

The size of that climate change impact is estimated to have accounted for 73 Billion (with a “B”) dollars of additional costs over those past 30 years.  The paper also estimates how monthly and peak precipitation values could continue to change and what they might look like by the 2081-2100 time period.  As additional “climate attribution” studies such as these are released, we will move ever closer to creating the business case for both climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Projected changes in monthly total and maximum five-day precipitation events under the low emission (RCP 2.6) and high emission (RCP 8.5) scenarios, for the 2081-2100 planning horizon (Source: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

Preparing for 2021

2020 serves as a stark reminder that climate change is on a trajectory to create an increasingly volatile environment for all of us.  Before we brace ourselves for this upcoming year, we need to remember that the long-tail of recovery following each of the 2020 events will last well into 2021, and perhaps beyond. Social and economic stability can take years to re-establish.  And for many individuals, businesses and governments alike, it can be difficult (and sometimes impossible) to return to the “normalcy” of those pre-event times.

While there was good news about reductions in carbon emissions this past year (an estimated 7% drop in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020), that level needs to be maintained every year for the next 10 years to meet the Paris reduction goals.  This will require transformational changes in how we generate and consume energy, as well as a significant overhaul in how “success” is measured in the financial and economic sectors.

All of this, of course, will take time.  The billion dollar disaster events of 2020 have shown us that the time has come.

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