As if you somehow hadn't heard, 2011 was a record-shattering year for extreme weather events around the globe. Floods, drought, and storms killed tens of thousands of people and caused over $150 billion in damages. In fact, at least 32 disasters caused more than a billion dollars in damage, and four topped out over $10 billion each. Droughts in Somalia led to a bona fide famine–the U.N. used the official term for the first time in 30 years–which claimed the lives of over 30,000 people, most of whom were children. Huge, often unprecedented flooding rocked Brazil, Colombia, Pakistan, Australia, and, Thailand.
It was a downright disastrous year. And, as we all know, climate scientists predict that these kinds of disasters (floods and drought especially) will occur more frequently as global warming progresses. So it's imperative that we do our best to grasp the nature and scope of this looming threat–by attempting to understand the extent of the damage being done right now, in a world in which the concentration of greenhouse gases is only slightly higher than historically 'safe' levels.
Top meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground, has corralled the data on last year's disasters into what might be the most frightening spreadsheets Excel has ever seen.
It's a pretty incredible list. Masters points out that the $45 billion flood damage in Thailand, the worst of the year, amounted to 18% of the nation's GDP. That's a seriously crippling blow, and one that the nation's economy will suffer deeply. The ten or so billion dollar disasters in the U.S. may not seem as immediately or deeply crippling on a national level, but cumulatively, these floods and droughts in increasingly flood-and-drought-prone regions should give us serious cause for alarm.
And that's to say nothing of the 'Super tornados' that swept the midwest last spring, or the extensive damage caused by the relatively mild Hurricane Irene.
Now, even as global warming advances, we likely won't see devastation and weirdness on this scale every year down the line. This isn't the 'new normal'–at least not quite yet. But we're continuing down a path in which the industrialized (and fast-industrializing) world refuses to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions; refuses to slow its mass burning of fossil fuels. And there will be a new normal, with, yes, more and scarier droughts and floods. We still have time to address this fact, both via mitigation and adaptation efforts–but the world we're headed towards will be a harsher place indeed.