WASHINGTON, DC – Ninety-seven percent of Americans live in a county affected by at least one weather-related disaster in recent years, according to a new interactive map using county-level federal government data and personal disaster stories from more than 150 Americans impacted by extreme weather.
“From massive floods to wildfires, dangerous weather is already hitting Americans close to home,” said Anna Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Global Warming Solutions program. “Without action to slow climate change, scientists say these extremes will only get worse.”
Ten weather disasters last year alone caused over $1 billion each in damage across the United States. The record floods in South Carolina, now in the midst of Severe Weather Awareness Week, cost an estimated $12 billion. In the last five years, at least one weather-related disaster was declared in every county in 32 states, according to the map compiled by Environment America and Frontier Group.
As the warmest winter on U.S. record comes to a close, scientists say global warming is already exacerbating some of these weather events.
“We are starting to take notice and to understand that even though each of these events is unique, and none of them by themselves can be directly attributed to climate change, there does seem to be some underlying factor that is changing,” said Dr. Jennifer Marlon, Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “And that’s exactly what this map is showing – that there are patterns in the weather that are changing, and those changes are having major impacts on people’s lives, right here, right now.”
For the first time on record, in 2015 wildfires in the U.S. burned more than 10 million acres in a single year. Since 2010, wildfires have caused disasters in counties housing nearly 8.5 million people, and studies show wildfires on the rise.
“Our research indicates that recent record-breaking fire years in the Alaskan boreal forest are unprecedented in the past 10,000 years,” said Dr. Ryan Kelly, who with Dr. Feng Sheng Hu of the University of Illinois, examined charcoal records from 14 lakes in Yukon Flats.
Scientists say unchecked global warming will likely increase the severity or the frequency of many extreme weather events. Hurricanes are likely to be more powerful and deliver more rainfall because of warmer temperatures, while in some regions the potential for drought – and, in some cases, wildfires – will increase.
The map includes dozens of personal disaster stories from across the country, including that of Josh Gregory, a swim team coach in Alaska unexpectedly impacted by the region’s wildfires.
“We had to cancel practices and meets because the buildings were pulling in air from outside, making it too smoky to see and breathe, even in the indoor swimming pools,” his story read.
The map release comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan, the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants that also incentivizes the development of wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy.
Since the pre-industrial era, average global temperature has increased by nearly a degree Celsius. In December, nearly 200 nations reached a global accord to limit warming to no more than another degree – a benchmark considered critical to avert even more severe and frequent weather disasters.
“Ultimately, we’re confident that the Clean Power Plan will survive polluter attacks in the courts,” said Aurilio. “In the mean time, states should be moving forward with clean energy solutions – for the sake our climate, our air, and our health. And to meet our commitment and beyond, we need to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable energy.”