New Study Says Flooding Due to Climate Change Cost the U.S. $75 Billion

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HOUSTON, TX – AUGUST 27: Mari Zertuche walks through a flooded parking lot on the campus of Rice University afer it was inundated with water from Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Harvey, which made landfall north of Corpus Christi late Friday evening, is expected to dump upwards to 40 inches of rain in areas of Texas over the next couple of days. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

HOUSTON (CW39) It’s one of the most comprehensive studies on flooding, in decades. Researchers at Stanford University conducting the study, looking at 30 year of precipitation data, to examine the impact of warming on storms.

Stanford researchers report that intensifying precipitation contributed one-third of the financial costs of flooding in the United States over the past three decades, totaling almost $75 billion of the estimated $199 billion in flood damages from 1988 to 2017.

The research, published January 11 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, helps to resolve a long-standing debate about the role of climate change, in the rising costs of flooding and provides new insight into the financial costs of global warming overall.

Heavy rain brings heavy floods to Houston

“The fact that extreme precipitation has been increasing and will likely increase in the future is well known, but what effect that has had on financial damages has been uncertain,” said lead author Frances Davenport, a PhD student in Earth system science at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Our analysis allows us to isolate how much of those changes in precipitation translate to changes in the cost of flooding, both now and in the future.”

At the crux of that debate is the question of whether or not the increasing trend in the cost of flooding in the U.S. has been driven primarily by socioeconomic factors like population growth, housing development and increasing property values. Most previous research has focused either on very detailed case studies (for example, of individual disasters or long-term changes in individual states) or on correlations between precipitation and flood damages for the U.S. overall.

The research team found that when totaled across all the individual states, changes in precipitation accounted for 36 percent of the actual flooding costs that occurred in the U.S. from 1988 to 2017. The effect of changing precipitation was primarily driven by increases in extreme precipitation, which have been responsible for the largest share of flooding costs historically.

“What we find is that, even in states where the long-term mean precipitation hasn’t changed, in most cases the wettest events have intensified, increasing the financial damages relative to what would have occurred without the changes in precipitation,” said Davenport, who received a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship in 2020.

The researchers emphasize that, by providing a new quantification of the scale of the financial costs of climate change, their findings have implications beyond flooding in the U.S.

“Accurately and comprehensively tallying the past and future costs of climate change is key to making good policy decisions,” said Burke. “This work shows that past climate change has already cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars, just due to flood damages alone.”

The authors envision their approach being applied to different natural hazards, to climate impacts in different sectors of the economy and to other regions of the globe to help understand the costs and benefits of climate adaptation and mitigation actions.

“That these results are as robust and definitive as they are really advances our understanding of the role of historical precipitation changes in the financial costs of flooding,” Diffenbaugh said. “But, more broadly, the framework that we developed provides an objective basis for estimating what it will cost to adapt to continued climate change and the economic value of avoiding higher levels of global warming in the future.”

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