“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 2. Signs of Stress: Climate & Water: More Destructive Storms
Rising temperatures and the power of storms are directly related. As sea surface temperatures rise, particularly in the tropics and subtropics, the additional heat radiating into the atmosphere causes more destructive storms. Higher temperatures mean more evaporation. Water that goes up must come down. What is not clear is exactly where the additional water will fall.32
More extreme weather events are of particular concern to countries in the hurricane or typhoon belt. Among those most directly affected by increased storm intensity are China, Japan, and the Philippines in the western Pacific, India and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal, and the United States and the Central American and Caribbean countries in the western Atlantic.
Munich Re, which insures insurance companies, has maintained detailed, worldwide data on natural catastrophes—principally storms, floods, and earthquakes—over the last half-century. The company defines a great natural catastrophe as one that overwhelms the capacity of a region to help itself, forcing it to depend on international assistance. During the 1960s, economic losses from these large-scale catastrophes totaled $69 billion; during the 1990s, they totaled $536 billion, nearly an eightfold increase.33
Recent years have seen some extraordinarily destructive tropical storms. Among them was Hurricane Andrew, which cut a large swath across the state of Florida in 1992. Storm alerts held the loss of human life to 65, but Andrew destroyed 60,000 homes and other buildings, inflicting some $30 billion in damage. In addition to the buildings it destroyed, it also took down seven insurance companies, as mounting claims left them insolvent.34
Six years later, Hurricane Georges—a powerful storm with winds of close to 200 miles per hour—was stalled off the coast of Central America by a high-pressure system that blocked its normal path to the north. It claimed 4,000 lives and inflicted a staggering $10 billion worth of damage on El Salvador and Nicaragua. Damage on this scale, which approached the combined gross domestic products of the two countries, set economic development back by a generation. A storm that hit Venezuela in mid-December 1999 caused enormous flooding and landslides, claimed 20,000 lives, and registered economic losses of $15 billion—second only to Hurricane Andrew.35
In late September 1999, Typhoon Bart hit Japan's densely populated island of Kyushu. Its toll in human life was held to only 26, but it did $5 billion worth of damage. Countries such as Japan, China, and the Philippines are in a particularly vulnerable location, fully exposed to all the power that storms generated over the tropical Pacific can muster.36
Winter storms are also becoming more destructive in the northern hemisphere. S.J. Lambert, writing in the Journal of Geophysical Research, has analyzed the frequency of intense winter storms in this hemisphere over the last century. From 1920 until 1970, there were roughly 40 storms a year. But then as temperatures started to climb, so did the frequency of storms. Since 1985, the northern hemisphere has experienced close to 80 storms a year—a doubling in less than a generation. Over the past decade or so, Western Europe has been hit by numerous storms of record destructiveness. In 1987, the United Kingdom and France bore the brunt of a winter storm that claimed 17 lives and caused $3.7 billion worth of damage. In 1999, Western Europe was hit by three unusually powerful winter storms: Anatole, Martin, and Lothar. They claimed 150 lives and did $10.3 billion worth of damage. Lothar, which hit the continent during the holiday season on December 26, left $7.5 billion of damage in France, Germany, and Switzerland.37
Damage from storms is mounting both because of greater population density and because the investment per person in housing or other structures that are vulnerable to storm damage is greater than ever. There is also a disproportionately large gain in construction in coastal regions, which are much more vulnerable to storms and storm surges.
The bottom line is that storms are increasing both in number and in destructiveness. More powerful storms mean more damage. A doubling of the number of winter storms in the northern hemisphere within less than a generation, coupled with increasing severity, yields a dramatic rise in storm-related damage.
At this point, no one knows quite how this trend will unfold in the twenty-first century, but it seems likely that if we continue with business as usual and CO2 levels continue to rise, the destructiveness in the future will dwarf that in the present—just as the destructiveness in the present is far greater than that of the recent past. The risk is that the cost of coping with these ever more destructive, human-induced catastrophes could overwhelm some societies, leading to their economic decline.
32. A correlation is made between increased sea surface temperatures and increased storm activity in Steven J. Lambert, "Intense Extratropical Northern Hemisphere Winter Cyclone Events: 1899-1991," Journal of Geophysical Research, 27 September 1996, pp. 21, 319-21, 325.
33. Munich Re, Topics 2000: Natural Catastrophes-The Current Position (Munich: Münchener Ruckversicherungs-Gesellschaft, December 1999), p. 43, and MRNatCatSERVICE, Significant Natural Disasters in 1999 (Munich: REF/Geo, January 2000).
34. Ed Rappaport, "Preliminary Report: Hurricane Andrew 16-28 August, 1992" (Miami, FL: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Hurricane Center, 10 December 1993); damage report estimates range from $25 billion in ibid. to $33 billion in William K. Stevens, "Storm Warning: Bigger Hurricanes and More of Them," New York Times, 3 June 1997.
35. Hurricane Georges in Munich Re, "Munich Re's Review of Natural Catastrophes in 1998," press release (Munich: 29 December 1998); December 1999 storm in Munich Re, op. cit. note 33.
36. Munich Re, op. cit. note 33, p. 15.
37. Lambert, op. cit. note 32; European storm information from Munich Re, op. cit. note 33, p. 48.
Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute