Is Climate Change Accelerating Natural Disasters?

"Fight Climate Change" protest

Yes. Yes it is.

You may have noticed in the last few years that natural disasters are on the rise. Adverse weather events are getting worse and more frequent due to the effects of climate change. Climate isn’t weather, but our destabilized climate is throwing all kinds of wrenches into our weather systems, and the consequences are not pleasant.

"Yeah" nodding GIF

You probably already know that global temperatures are up, and every one of the top 10 warmest years on record has been after 2005. Higher temperatures don’t just mean more droughts and wildfires. That water we’re losing from the ground is still in the system; it’s evaporating, and that increased air moisture contributes to heavier rainfall and potential flooding.

Rule of Thumb

Flood risk near oceans also increases as sea levels rise due to higher polar temperatures. Good luck, coastal peeps!

You get the idea. Global warming is real and natural disasters are escalating. It’s hard to model the exact trajectory of the weather as temperatures continue to increase, but we’re definitely not moving in the direction of less risk. The best course is to be prepared. We can no longer assume that disasters are for someone else; they’re becoming so pervasive that ignoring the possibility of experiencing a natural disaster is a fool’s errand. Unless you can control your own luck, it’s time to get wise.

But where exactly are the biggest risks?

The Rising Tide: Increased Flood Risks

Flooding is a nightmare on its own, but it’s also a major contributor to the deadliness of other disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis. It’s an all-purpose disaster! It’s on track to get even scarier, as climate change makes sea levels rise.

According to the EPA, the average number of “flood days” seen in the US has accelerated over the past few decades. In many places, floods are five times more likely than they were in the 1950s. Flood-prone regions like the East and Gulf Coasts will have more intense flooding, and we’ll also see the flood gods continue to branch out in the West. If you’re in the US, you should be prepared for a flood, especially if you live in a low-lying area.

We recommend the FEMA flood map as a go-to resource to learn your area’s unique flood risks and the likelihood that a flooding event will affect your home. Even if you confirm with FEMA’s flood maps that you don’t live in a flood zone, getting flood insurance will help you recover from damages that a flood may cause. Typical homeowners insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, so we recommend that you secure a policy through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Flooded houses
Storm Surges: Increased Hurricane Risk

Hurricanes are killers, and they’re even more dangerous to humans when we ignore their destructive power. Hopefully, we won’t continue to ignore them! Research from NASA’s Global Climate Change website predicts that hurricane storm surges will get worse over time:

“Due to global warming, global climate models predict hurricanes will likely cause more intense rainfall and have an increased coastal flood risk due to higher storm surge caused by rising seas. Additionally, the global frequency of storms may decrease or remain unchanged, but hurricanes that form are more likely to become intense.”

If that’s too much science-talk for you, NASA is saying that future hurricanes will be more powerful and more capable of causing extreme flooding.

You don’t have to look far to find examples. Hurricanes have always been a concern for the Southeast United States, but recent examples have shown us the true power of an out-of-control tropical storm:

  • Ian (2022)
  • Florence (2018)
  • Irma and Maria (2017)
  • Sandy (2012)
  • Katrina (2005)

As these storm surges increase in intensity, their effects will be more severe at the coasts, and large numbers of people will be at risk as more powerful storms move deeper inland. Everyone within 100 miles of the East and Gulf Coasts should be prepared for a major storm.

Damaged home post hurricane
Beat the Heat: Increased Heat Wave Risk

With all this talk about rising temperatures, you knew this was coming. Climate change means that people all around the world are struggling with more intense and longer-lasting heat waves.

Summers in temperate zones are getting hotter. The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that between the years 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heat waves increased by 125 million. And if you’re thinking a little heat never hurt anybody, you’re thinking like a dummy. Over 166,000 people died from heat waves from 1998 to 2017. Those hot days are killers, especially in areas without the resources to cool everyone down.

If you’re feeling the heat more now than in years past, know that a reprieve is not coming. These issues will increase as climate change accelerates, and every part of the US is affected. The best thing you can do as an individual is to make sure you’re prepared for the heat.

Stock up on supplies that will see you through power outages like generators and power banks. Make sure you know where your local cooling centers are, and keep track of your elderly neighbors who are at greatest risk for heat illness. Intense heat waves mean rolling blackouts and water restriction in locations affected by drought, so don’t be caught unprepared.

Sun over hot desert
Burning Acres: Increased Wildfire Risk

In the last few years, wildfires could have rebranded with the tagline, “Wildfires: They’re Everywhere You Want to Be.” The good/bad news is that wildfires don’t need a marketing team to make you participate in their madness. They’re hitting more locations than ever, and becoming more difficult to quench as our climate heats up and droughts become more frequent. 

And if you’re a seasoned woodsman who knows some forests need fire to thrive, listen up: the EPA warns that, even though wildfires are a natural part of our environmental equilibrium, wildfire patterns have begun to change. Multiple studies confirm that climate change has led to increases of wildfire season length, wildfire frequency, and overall burn area.

Digest these hot facts from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

  • Between 1990 and 2022, the US had 21 wildfires resulting in more than $1 billion in damage.
  • 17 of those happened in 2000 or later.
  • Three of those happened between 2020 and 2022.
  • Those three alone were responsible for more than $33 billion in damages and 71 deaths.

I think it’s safe to say that we’re not getting worse at fighting wildfires… wildfires are getting better at fighting us.

People who find themselves in the path of a wildfire are certainly at dire risk, but the effects of a wildfire can be felt for miles beyond the burn line. Smoke from these fires causes severe air pollution, sometimes multiple states away from their origin. Inhaling smoke is no joke, so be prepared with masks, air purifiers, and an evacuation plan to keep yourself safe when the danger is high.

wildfire on hills

If you were looking for “nowhere near me,” I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news! Climate change is throwing us all for a loop in one way or another.

There’s not a whole lot you can do to stop climate change individually, but you should definitely organize your voting power in the direction of mitigating climate change, if you haven’t already. The US is working hard to reach its carbon emissions reduction goals, but our legislative options are frequently kneecapped by regressive representatives. Vote for people with strong climate policy goals, or at least a record of supporting progressive climate bills.

If you want to do everything you can, work on reducing your carbon footprint. Transportation is a major contributor to carbon emissions in the US, and that’s mostly because we’re notorious for taking our cars everywhere. If you use your car for every trip, try to bike, walk, or use public transportation when you’re able. Starting with trips of one mile or less can help you gauge whether you are truly car-dependent or if you are able to travel more without one. If your area makes you truly car-dependent, work toward purchasing an EV.

Unfortunately, the weather events that have become more extreme aren’t likely to go back to normal, so you’ll also need to be prepared for more disasters. Our guides make it simple to make a plan, get the right gear, and practice the drills that will get you ready to react calmly, even if the worst happens. Better safe than sorry, amirite?

exit sign
Seriously, make an evacuation plan.

About the Author

Writer, editor, and professional joker with an environmental science background. Like most trivia nerds, she's an ardent admirer of Only Connect competitors, but more at home on the QI field.


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