2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season and Wildfire Recap
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2021 AS OF 3:30 PM CST
As our climate continues to change globally, natural disasters continue to increase in both frequency and magnitude. This past year, the United States (US) saw particularly destructive hurricanes and wildfires across the country. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported 21 named storms for the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season, while the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports 54,350 wildfires this year, to date, that have burned over 6.8 million acres. Hagerty reported on the numerous climate-driven disasters over the course of the past year, including 29 Situation Status blog posts (Sit Stat), relaying real-time, critical information as soon as it was released to the general public.
The 2021 Atlantic hurricane season officially ended on November 30, 2021, after producing 21 named storms, according to NOAA. The storms included seven hurricanes – four of which were major hurricanes – and five rapidly intensifying storms that increased maximum sustained winds of at least 30 knots (kt) within a 24-hour window. 2021 is officially the third most active year since NOAA began tracking hurricanes in 1851, and the sixth consecutive above-normal Atlantic hurricane season. It was also the first time two consecutive hurricane seasons used the entire list of 21 storm names.
2021 Atlantic Hurricane Season: NOAA
Eight storms hit the United States (US) coastline, including Category 1 Hurricane Elsa. The Weather Channel reported that the effects of Hurricane Elsa were felt from the Caribbean to Florida to New England. On July 1, Hurricane Elsa became the first hurricane of 2021, where it created flooding, rain, powerful winds, and isolated tornadoes, with impacts that stretched along the East Coast, including Tropical Storm Warnings issued for over 1,000 miles of the US coastline on July 8, 2021.
NOAA noted the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season was also one of the most expensive in US history. Hurricane Ida, the most expensive disaster of the year, is responsible for over $60 billion in damages and ranks among the top five most expensive hurricanes in the US since 1980. Hurricane Ida is tied as the fifth strongest hurricane to strike the US—it first made landfall as a major hurricane in Louisiana on August 29, the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Ida devastated the power grids of Mississippi and Louisiana and caused flash and urban flooding across the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted that, as of September 9, 2021, Hurricane Ida had caused 91 deaths across nine states. The Weather Channel stated that Ida also impacted the Eastern Seaboard, causing historic flooding and tornadoes in New England. While Ida was downgraded to a tropical depression as it traveled, it still produced up to 11 inches of rain in the northeast part of the country early in September, leading the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue a Flash Flood Emergency in parts of New York and New Jersey for the first time in US history.
2021 Weather and Climate Disasters: NOAA
Matthew Rosencrans, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said climate change was responsible for part of the historic season’s intensity, noting that “Climate factors, which include La Niña, above-normal sea surface temperatures earlier in the season, and above-average West African Monsoon rainfall were the primary contributors for this above-average hurricane season.” The impact of climate change on disasters is also evident in the 2021 wildfire season.
WILDFIRES in 2021
North American wildfires, unlike hurricanes, have no “season” as they occur year-round due to drought and increased temperatures across the country. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), over half of the continental are considered “in drought,” impacting roughly 90 million individuals. Extreme and Exceptional Drought (D3 and D4), as categorized by NOAA, include crop loss and extreme fire risk; NIDIS’s Wildfire Management portal includes information on the overlap of current droughts and active wildfire events, the cascading impacts of heat and dry weather on wildfire preparedness, and resources communities can use to ensure they are prepared for extreme drought and wildfire events.
NIDIS: Current Drought Conditions and Active Wildfires Across the United States
According to the NIFC, wildfires have burned over 6,802,729 acres across 54,350 incidents to date in 2021. Optimistically, NIFC reports that this is slightly below the 10-year average, which is 7,228,178 acres and 54,485 incidents, but notes that 10 uncontained large fires continue to burn across Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia. The NIFC recommends that residents of fire-prone areas review the wildland fire outlook by Predictive Services at the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) to anticipate conditions for December through March of 2022.
Throughout this year, the US has seen profound wildfire impacts and events. In April, the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reported that the US was experiencing exceptional drought conditions across the Great Basin and West Coast. By May, California alone was fighting the Owens, Palisades, and Southern Fire, which burned over 8,000 acres in just 20 days. In June, the NIFC reported that the US entered National Wildland Fire Preparedness Level 4 (out of 5), deploying emergency response operations across the western US. As wildfire smoke traveled across the country, we saw the harmful air quality index (AQI) in cities as far east as Boston, Massachusetts and New York City, New York. In October, the western US grappled with the impacts of continued wildfire events, like power outages and blackouts across the state of California. As the year comes to an end, the NICC and NIFC will continue to keep communities up-to-date on wildfire events into 2022.
Know Your Alerts and Warnings: Ready.gov
Preparedness is Key
While the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season has concluded and the peak months of wildfires are behind us, it is still important to be prepared for weather-related disasters. Now is the time to update or create an emergency plan for your home and business, using the resources the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) makes available online. One of the most effective ways to stay prepared is to learn the myriad ways to access emergency alerts and warnings, including downloading the FEMA Mobile App to receive real-time alerts, bookmarking the active alerts search website provided by NOAA NWS, and understanding how local authorities issue emergency notifications in your community.