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The U.S. experienced a record number of weather and climate-driven disasters in 2020, with hurricanes in quick succession pummeling the East, extensive wildfires scorching the West, and extreme heat sweeping across the heart of the country, according to a U.S. federal agency.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), a total of 22 major disasters each causing at least $1bn in damage swept the United States last year, six more than the previous record.
The federal agency reported on Friday that at least 262 people died in these events, with $95bn in total damages recorded.
The year was marred by extremes on both the East and West coasts, including the most active wildfire year on record in the US West, with California recording five of the six biggest fires in its history, an outbreak destroying thousands of homes and causing the sky to turn an apocalyptic orange over the San Francisco Bay Area.
Across the US west, a total of 10.3 million acres burned in wildfires in 2020, an area larger than Maryland and above this century’s average.
In the East and the Gulf of Mexico, a record 12 tropical storms hit the U.S. during a year when forecasters had to turn to the Greek alphabet for storms’ names because the number of events had exhausted the list of planned names.
Three hurricanes and two tropical storms hit Louisiana alone, while seven storms caused more than $1bn in damage, including hurricanes Laura and Sally, which hit the U.S. South in quick succession in August and September.
Last year, a major drought and heatwave blasted the US West, where there were three major tornado-related disasters and a highly destructive derecho, an event driven by fast-moving thunderstorms, that downed power lines, damaged houses and flattened crops in various Midwestern states.
Noaa found that 2020 was the fifth hottest on record across the contiguous US, following a pattern of national and global heating. In fact, all of the five warmest years on record in the U.S. have occurred since 2012.
While hurricanes and wildfires have always hit the U.S., scientists have reported that the storms' strength is increasing as the atmosphere and ocean heat up, while the area consumed by fire has grown as rising temperatures dry out soils and vegetation.
Accoridng to Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, “The record number of climate change-exacerbated weather disasters this year drives home the fact that, as I like to say, the impacts of climate change are no longer subtle."
“We’re seeing them play out in real time. Hopefully this is the year where we finally see the sort of action, by the US and the rest of the world, that is necessary to prevent things from getting worse,” Mann assured.