Snow blankets the roofs of a neighborhood, as seen in an aerial photo.
An unprecedented winter storm and prolonged cold wave caused major power outages in Texas and other southern states in February 2021, leading to more than 200 deaths. Such blasts of cold air have become more common in the last 40 years, according to recent research—a trend likely to continue as the climate changes. Photo: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/iStock
From Audubon Magazine

The Rise of Billion-Dollar Disasters

As extreme weather and climate events cause increasing devastation, people and birds are paying the price.

In the last year, deadly frigid winter temperatures in Texas gave way to excruciating summer heat in the Northwest. Wildfires raged across California. In late summer, Hurricane Ida devastated Louisiana and flooded the Northeast. In December, an outbreak of nearly 70 tornadoes caused unprecedented destruction. 

If you've thought headlines about U.S. weather and climate disasters are becoming more common: You're right. In the 1980s, only three events per year on average caused more than $1 billion in damage (inflation adjusted). The 2010s averaged around 12 such disasters a year—and 2020 made history with 22. In 2021, as of October, 18 events set a record for the first nine months of any year since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping track in 1980.

The “billion dollar” cost metric is an arbitrary milestone, but its rise reveals several troubling trends, says NOAA applied climatologist Adam Smith. Climate change is turbocharging many kinds of extreme weather, and the same places get hit repeatedly, like the hurricane-battered South. In addition, more development in vulnerable areas, such as coasts or wildfire-prone forests, means each disaster can cause more damage.

Smith has spent 12 years compiling data on these disasters. “Normally, after you work on something for a while—more than a decade—you should stop becoming surprised,” he says. “But every year surprises me.” For example in June 2021, the record-breaking heat in the Northwest, which reached 117 degrees in Salem, Oregon, “wasn't really supposed to happen for several more decades,” he says.

Since 1980 through October 2021, all billion-dollar disasters have totaled $2.086 trillion—more than twice the money allocated for the Biden administration’s infrastructure law. And from 2016 to 2020 alone, these events cost $640.3 billion. It’s a price paid by everyone—businesses losing money; federal, state, and local governments reallocating funds to disaster relief; taxpayers; and individuals paying for lost homes or damaged property.
Each circle on the timeline represents one disaster with a toll of at least $1 billion, through October 2021. Circle color represents disaster type. Circle size represents the total damages, in 2021 dollars.


Freezes carry a steep price tag when they damage crop yield. Though the 2017 freeze in the Southeast wasn’t unusual for that time of year, it caused extra damage to agriculture as crops had started blooming three or more weeks earlier than usual due to warmer than average temperatures.

Winter Storms

In February 2021, cold weather across much of the country killed 172 people and left more than 10 million Texans without power, making it the costliest winter storm in U.S. history.


Wildfires are burning more land, more frequently as days get drier and hotter with climate change. In 2020, California wildfires scorched over 4.2 million acres. That's more than twice the previous record of 1.95 million acres, which had been set just two years before. And wildfire seasons are getting longer, too. Compared to the 1970s, the wildfire season in the West now lasts 105 more days, according to a 2016 report from Climate Central.


Another marker of climate change, more frequent and severe droughts increase the potential for wildfire and the risks to birds. NOAA’s data shows a billion-dollar drought nearly every year, especially in recent decades. “Since the year 2000, the West has been in a semi-permanent state of drought,” Smith says.


Disastrous flooding is becoming more frequent, but the water that inundated the Midwest in the summer of 1993 remains an exceptional case. Heavy rains that year flooded both the Mississippi and Missouri River valleys, destroying crops and killing 48 people.


Hurricanes have historically been the most expensive and deadliest disasters: Katrina in 2005 is the costliest event on record ($179 billion), followed by 2017’s Harvey ($139 billion) and Maria ($100 billion). And warming is likely to cause more intense hurricanes in the future.

Severe Storms

Costly severe storms including tornadoes, hail, high winds, thunderstorms, and derechos have become markedly more common since 1980. These events caused extensive damage to homes, vehicles, and businesses.
Strong storms in recent years—notably Hurricanes Katrina and Maria—have driven the highest death tolls. And weather disasters often kill those most vulnerable in society. Extreme heat and frigid cold especially threaten older adults, young children, and those with chronic medical conditions. And lower-income residents are more likely to live in areas with poor infrastructure or living conditions most vulnerable to storms. That’s why prioritizing equity is crucial to emergency response and preparedness.
Here’s the good news: Though deaths due to billion-dollar disasters have risen in total, each event is becoming less deadly on average. That's largely due to improved warning systems that detail where disasters may happen, Smith says. Including disabled and elderly people in emergency planning can help shrink the toll in these communities. What’s clear: Better and more equitable disaster planning, communication, and infrastructure does save lives.
Infographic: Katie Peek. Web adaptation: Alex Tomlinson/Audubon. “Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters”, October 2021, NOAA