2023 has been a year for the record books when it comes to temperatures, fires, rainfall, and floods. It’s also been a year in which the temperature of the oceans has soared, ice at the poles has diminished, and record-size hailstones have fallen during severe storms. The U.S. has already seen at least 15 severe weather events, generating costs of over $1 billion each—and we’re only halfway through a hurricane season that’s predicted to be “above normal.”
In so many ways, 2023 has been the hottest, wettest, stormiest, and most unpredictable year most people have ever experienced. It could also be, terrifyingly enough, the coolest and most stable year any of us will know in the future.
This is the year the climate crisis went from something that many people ignored, to a reality that saw some of those people taking to boats to escape flooding, or driving in caravans through massive fires. And way too often, in the United States and around the world, people have been unable to escape these climate-driven disasters in a year that has already been terrible—and is far from over.
The thing that most Americans will remember about the summer of 2023 is simply the heat. Multiple high-pressure “heat domes” clamped down on the West, Midwest, and East at different times over the summer, bringing with them rafts of shattered temperature records, some of them genuinely amazing.
Whether it was Phoenix sweltering through 31 straight days at or above 110 degrees, or how records for the hottest day in human history kept being surpassed, the sheer daily caloric weight was enough to bring another record that no one wants: record deaths.
For those in the U.S., the orange sunsets and mountain mists at first seemed sort of pretty … until it all thickened into a haze that obscured the sky and left those with breathing issues gasping. Wildfires have devastated California and other Western states in the past few years, and there were many such fires in 2023. But it was the incredible devastation in Canada, where more than 800 active fires burned simultaneously, that gave areas of the U.S. stretching from Kansas City to New York a sample of what it’s like to exist in areas where air quality is nearly unlivable.
Those wildfires in Canada, in the Pacific Northwest, and in the forests of several other Western states have become almost routine. They’re not any less horrible or any less destructive; they’re just so common that some have suggested that we’re now living in the “Pyrocene epoch.” Literally: the age of fire.
But the most surprising and devastating fire of 2023 has to be the one that just was not supposed to happen. Not in a place surrounded by water, considered by many to be the closest thing to paradise on Earth. The official death toll for the fire that destroyed the town of Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui now stands at 115, with 66 people still missing according to the governor. The costs of that fire have been estimated at more than $5.5 billion. That’s not counting the damage done to one of the world’s most diverse and fragile ecosystems, or the threat the fire represents to the island’s culture. And that fire was far from alone.
Increasing temperatures mean increasing rain. That’s because warmer air simply holds more moisture, and warmer oceans give up that moisture more readily. The climate crisis drives flooding of all kinds, and 2023 brought plenty of examples.
In the United States, the rains brought to Southern California by the rare Hurricane Hillary were swiftly followed by a monsoonal thunderstorm. The resulting floods generated mudslides, damaged homes, and refilled Tulare Lake, which was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi before it was drained to provide agricultural land and water for surrounding towns in the 1930s.
Other areas of the Southwest saw record rainfall this year and record snowmelt following a wet winter. This has added up to 20 feet to some of the reservoirs in the area, but is far from enough to reverse a decades-long combination of drought and overuse that has put those reservoirs on a path to destruction.
Since 1980, the U.S. has run up a tab of $2.59 trillion to address the damages caused by climate disasters. In 2022 alone, the bill ran to $165 billion, making it nearly three times as costly as the average year over the past four decades. That’s because the effects of the climate crisis are constantly compounding. Record heat, record moisture, record fires, and record storms are all record costly. And only a fraction of that cost can be measured in dollars.
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