More intense droughts, stronger hurricanes, heavier downpours, more extreme heat—these are all signs of a warming climate.

  • In recent months, a large portion of the West has been under a severe drought with strong links to climate change. 
  • Last year, the parched West was engulfed in wildfires. In California alone, officials estimated that the fires burned about 4 million acres of land.
  • In the last four decades, the percentage of hurricanes reaching Category 3, both globally and in the Atlantic, has increased.

Taking Climate to the Extreme: Our emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases continues to shift the planet to warmer and more dangerous conditions that humans (and the ecosystems we depend on) aren’t used to. As a result of the added heat, we are seeing:

  • Rising temperatures: Adding heat to a system will only make it hotter, and that’s exactly what is happening. 2020 was the one of the two warmest years on record globally, and it was ranked the fifth-warmest year here in the U.S.
  • Wet gets wetter; dry gets drier: As the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more water, meaning more intense evaporation (drought) and heavier precipitation (flooding). 
  • Stronger Storms: A combination of warmer air and water temperatures supercharge the water cycle, allowing hurricanes to become stronger and cause more damage once onshore. 

A look at the numbers: The NOAA/NCEI Climate Extremes Index (CEI) tracks extreme weather events by combining six indicators related to temperature, drought, precipitation events, and tropical cyclone activity. Scientists determine a percentage of the contiguous U.S. that is above or below these normal climate conditions to calculate the extremes. 

  • 2020 was the highest CEI on record with a percentage of 44.63%.
  • Even though the CEI data goes back to 1910, five of the top six percentages occurred in the last decade (2012, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2020). 

Extreme weather comes with a big cost: Extreme weather of all kinds—severe local storms, tropical cyclones, freezes, winter storms, wildfires, drought, heatwaves, flooding—can cause a lot of physical damage with a big price tag. These disasters can also place strain on communities, mentally and socially.

  • Last year, the U.S. experienced 22 billion-dollar disasters, the highest number on record, that cost a whopping $95 billion dollars in total.
  • Climate extremes are also costly in human lives. In the last 5 years (2016-2020), there have been 3,969 deaths linked to billion-dollar disasters.
  • Weather-related disasters can literally rip away the livelihoods and sense of normalcy of an entire community in minutes. People who experience these disasters can develop mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Vulnerable populations, like children, the elderly, the homeless, first responders, and people in low income communities, are at a higher risk of distress.