by Jack Rosebro
|2008 natural disasters, by location and severity. Source: Munich Re. Click to enlarge.|
Munich Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurers, has released its annual figures on worldwide losses from natural catastrophes, and has termed 2008 “one of the most devastating years on record,” partly due to the large number of tropical cyclones as well as the Sichuan earthquake in China.
According to the company, the year is the third most expensive on record, exceeded only by 2005—the year that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans—and 1995, the year of the Kobe earthquake.
It is now very probable that the progressive warming of the atmosphere is due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. The logic is clear. When temperatures increase, there is more evaporation, and the atmosphere has a greater capacity to absorb water vapor, with the result that its energy content is higher. The weather machine runs in top gear, bringing more intense severe weather events with corresponding effects in terms of losses. This relationship is already visible today in the increasing heavy precipitation events in many regions of the Earth, the heat waves, and the hurricanes in the North Atlantic.—Peter Höppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo-Risks Research unit
|“The [natural catastrophe] loss statistics for 2008 fit the pattern that the calculations of climate models lead us to expect.”|
Despite a drop in loss-producing events compared with 2007 (from 960 to 750), insured losses in 2008 rose to US $45 billion, about 50% higher than in the previous year. More than 220,000 people died worldwide this year as a result of natural catastrophes.
Torsten Jeworrek, of Munich Re’s Board of Management, commented: “This continues the long-term trend we have been observing. Climate change has already started and is very probably contributing to increasingly frequent weather extremes and ensuing natural catastrophes. These, in turn, generate greater and greater losses because the concentration of values in exposed areas, like regions on the coast, is also increasing further throughout the world.”
In Asia, Cyclone Nargis is estimated to have claimed the lives of more than 135,000 people in Myanmar, with 54,000 people still missing. With large parts of Myanmar’s mangrove forests—a natural form of coastal protection—eradicated in recent years, storm surges reached as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) inland. The country was inundated with water up to three meters deep, and more than a million of Myanmar’s inhabitants were made homeless.
|Ten largest natural disasters in 2008. Source: Munich Re. Click to enlarge.|
Six tropical cyclones—Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike—reached the US coast this year. Ike made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Galveston, and submerged large sections of the Texas and Louisiana coast. The incidence of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic this year was also higher than the long-term average, as well as the yearly average of the current warm phase (14.7 cyclones) since 1995. A total of 16 tropical cyclones were counted in 2008; eight reached hurricane strength, with five classified as major hurricanes (Categories 3 to 5).
Preliminary estimates published by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) identify 2008 as the tenth warmest year since the beginning of routine temperature recording, and the eighth warmest in the northern hemisphere.
This year, Munich Re began collaborating with Lord Nicholas Stern, lead author of the Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change, (earlier post) and the London School of Economics, where Stern is a professor, on research concerning the economic impacts of climate change.
A report by Stern, entitled Key Elements of a Global Deal on Climate Change and released last April, focused on strategies and cost calculations for a greenhouse gas stabilization target of 500 ppm CO2 equivalent, as opposed to than the 550 pm CO2 equivalent target examined by the Stern Review.
“The reason that we have chosen to focus on 500 ppm rather than 550 ppm,” explained Stern, “is that subsequent evidence has indicated that the position is more risky than assumed in the Stern Review.”
Stern gave four primary reasons for revising the stabilization target:
Emissions are growing faster that the IPCC trajectory used in the Stern Review, as summarized in Australia’s Garnaut Climate Change Review (earlier post).
The absorptive capacity of the planet, including of the oceans, appears to be lower than many earlier models had assumed.
The weights in the upper tail of climate sensitivity (the effect of eventual temperature increases on stocks of greenhouse gases) appear to be higher than anticipated.
Physical effects of global warming from a given temperature change, via climate change and directly from the warming, appear to be happening faster than had been anticipated.
Dr. Jeworrek said that the increase in natural catastrophes “have resulted in three action strategies, which we are resolutely pursuing.”
Firstly, we accept risks in our core business only at risk-adequate prices, so that if the exposure situation changes, we adjust the pricing structure. Secondly, with our expertise we develop new business opportunities in the context of climate protection and adaptation measures. Thirdly, in the international debate, we—as a company—press for effective and binding rules on CO2 emissions, so that climate change is curbed and future generations do not have to live with weather scenarios that are difficult to control.
As of January 2009, graphs and tables derived from current analyses of natural catastrophes will be available at the NatCatSERVICE download center. Munich Re is headquartered in Munich, Germany and insures in about 160 countries.