What’s a little warming between friends? Maybe a rainstorm or two?
But seriously. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably become familiar with the phrase “extreme weather.”
Floods, storms, droughts, and heat waves have featured prominently in the past year’s news. Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters rattles off a top 20 list of extreme events in 2010-2011 (that there are at least twenty would seem to be a statement in itself) and says no other year since 1816 has hit as many global extremes. Just half-way through the year, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already ranks 2011 as one of the most extreme weather years in history. And putting aside the issue of whether any one event or season can be blamed on climate change, all indications are that weather will become increasingly extreme as global temperatures continue to rise.
The consequences for those living in the path of destruction are easily visible. But the total cost of extreme weather extends well beyond those immediately affected, and is significantly harder to put a number on. That’s what scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research have done, though. Well, almost. They actually estimated the price tag of routine weather variations, like rain storms and cooler-than-average days, from 70 years of records. And it’s a staggering number: as much as $485 billion each year in the United States alone. That’s almost 3.5% of GDP.
“It’s clear that our economy isn’t weatherproof,” says lead author Jeffrey Lazo. “Even routine changes in the weather can add up to substantial impacts on the U.S. economy.”
Lazo cautions that the $485 billion figure is “an initial estimate” – one they plan to revisit with more research – and explicitly does not include extreme weather events, like this spring’s tornado outbreak, that could push the cost even higher.
Even assessing the costs of routine weather offers an opportunity to assess our vulnerabilities. In particular, Lazo and his colleagues ranked industry sectors according to their annual losses due to weather.
- Mining (14%) – “perhaps because of changing demand for oil, gas, and coal.”
- Agriculture (12%) – After all, crops are plants. And plants are obviously affected by temperature and precipitation.
- Manufacturing and “finance, insurance, and retail” tied for third place (8%)
- Utilities (7%) – Probably back to the changing demands that hurt mining, plus infrastructure damage.
- Wholesale trade (2%)
- Retail trade (2%)
- Services (3%)