2021 is third most catastrophic climate year on record, according to NOAA

DELMARVA – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is reporting that 2021 was one of the most catastrophic climate years on record. In 2021, 688 people died and about $145 billion were lost as a result of extreme weather events associated with climate change.

Statistics Raise Concerns

These statistics peg 2021 at the third costliest extreme weather year on record. UMES’ Chair of the Department of Natural Sciences Dr. Jonathan Cumming says the extreme weather could be a result of the climate becoming more variable. “There’s more energy in the atmosphere. What happens is when humans produce CO2 through energy use, that CO2 or greenhouse gas captures and stores energy in the atmosphere. That energy in the atmosphere is exactly what fuels the hurricanes, the tornadoes, and the strong thunder storms,” he said.

Dr. Cumming says the expanding human population and the construction of infrastructure that can’t withstand climate change is also contributing to the impact of severe weather events. “They’re lands that we really shouldn’t be building in, and building codes have not kept up. So, we build closer and closer to water, for example, on the coast where any housing is going impacted by any kind of hurricane,” he said.

Out west, where people are dealing with deadly forest fires, the same issue is happening, according to Dr. Cumming. He says as people build into the wildland urban interface, more houses will be subject to devastating fires. “We have the climate changing, and an increase in the number and the energetics of these storm systems coming in. But also, at the same time, humans are putting themselves in the paths of these natural disasters,” said Dr. Cumming.

Climate Change In Your Backyard

On Delmarva, Dr. Cumming says the effects of climate change will likely be most noticeable in rising sea levels and the intrusion of salt water into fresh water sources. “We’re really just a bunch of sand dunes and beaches left over from when the ocean was higher or lower in the past. So, right now with global climate change, we know that ocean levels are rising about an eighth of an inch per year,” he said.

Dr. Cumming points to the large, but dead trees that can be found on the edge of many of Delmarva’s estuaries and marshes. “Those trees that have died are 80 or 100 years old. They’re being dead now is a reflection of the salt water intrusion into the soil. Trees are not used to growing in salt water, except for mangroves. So, the trees will die. Those trees standing there and being dead and gray like they are really reflects that we are actively seeing sea water and sea levels rise,” he said.

Another impact of climate change that could affect Delmarva is the hurricane season getting longer, with more frequent and severe storms. “At some point, our luck may run out and if we have sea level rise, we could get six or eight foot sea level push. That will create large consequences for most of our coastal communities,” said Dr. Cumming.

Extreme Weather Impacts Your Wallet

Dr. Cumming also predicts, if the cost of severe weather events continues on its current trend, it could end up costing as much as $1.5 trillion. That’s roughly the cost of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which includes provisions to mitigate climate change. “They say it’s a lot of dollars now. But, if we’re talking about $150 billion just last year alone in damages, if we do that for ten years, that’s $1.5 trillion,” said Dr. Cumming.

While the dollar amount of a human life is incalculable, Dr. Cumming says lives lost as a result of climate change can end up impacting the economy. “We have $150 billion worth of damage that’s taken place in these natural disasters that we had. Those dollars are spread across our population. They’re spread into our insurance policies,” he said. “What we can’t control in the economic equation is those 688 lives lost. Those are mothers, fathers, daughters, brothers, sons, grandparents – people who are economically active.”

That’s why Dr. Cumming is urging people on Delmarva to prepare for climate change now, even if it’s already happening. “Either we can buy into stricter building codes now and the higher costs associated with lower CO2 production, like electric vehicles for example, and mitigate CO2 production, and have a future with fewer or less violent storms. Or, we can roll the dice and wait for the most violent storms in the future, and the damage that’s going to occur,” he said.

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