One out of Two New Mexicans Live in Areas Hit by Recent Weather Disasters

Environment New Mexico Research & Policy Center

Albuquerque, NM —After a year that saw many parts of the country hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, severe storms and record flooding, a new Environment New Mexico report documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future.  The report found that, already, one in two New Mexicans live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006.  

“Over 1 million New Mexicans have lived through extreme weather causing extremely big problems for New Mexico’s economy,” said Sanders Moore, Environment New Mexico Director. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”

The new report, entitled In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many New Mexicans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available on Environment New Mexico’s website.

The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms.  Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming such as sea level rise.

Key findings from the Environment New Mexico report include:

  • Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 23 counties in New Mexico – or nearly 1 of every 2 New Mexicans. Recent weather-related disasters include flooding in Cibola, Los Alamos, and Sandoval counties, severe winter storms in the Pueblos, and severe storms in Luna, Otero, and Mora counties. 
  • In 2011 alone, federally declared weather related disasters affected nine counties with over 364,000 residents.  Nationally, the number of disasters inflicting more than $1 billion in damage (at least 14) set an all-time record last year, with total damages from those disasters costing at least $55 billion.
  • Nationally, federally declared weather-related disasters have affected counties housing 242 million people since 2006—or nearly four out of five Americans. 
  • Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.
  • Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.
  • Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.

Moore noted that global warming is expected to have varying impacts on different types of extreme weather events. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is little scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes. In addition, every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather.

“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said Moore. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.”

The report was released as the Obama administration is finalizing historic new carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and as the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to develop carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming. At the same time, some polluting industries and their allies in Congress are working to block these and other clean air standards.

Environment New Mexico applauded U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall for their continued efforts to hold polluters accountable by rejecting attacks on clean air standards. 

“We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” said Moore.  “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”

***CORRECTION: Due to a revision in federal weather data that occurred after production of In the Path of the Storm was complete, Texas did not post the warmest June through August ever recorded in any U.S. state during the summer of 2011; in fact, neighboring Oklahoma did, with an average temperature 0.2 degrees warmer than that of Texas. Our original finding was based on an earlier analysis by the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) that indicated that Texas’ average summer temperature was 0.3 degrees warmer than Oklahoma during 2011. The average summer temperature in both states during 2011 surpassed that of the previous record-holder, the “Dust Bowl” summer of 1934 in Oklahoma, as described in the report.