Destructive 2021 hurricane season reaches its peak as insurance industry warns of "riskier" landscape
As predicted, the 2021 hurricane season is behaving much like 2020, signifying the continuation of a prolonged period of above average storm activity in the Atlantic and Caribbean region.
After the Hurricane Ida's trail of destruction from Louisiana to New Jersey last week, this years’ storm activity has already accumulated 153% of its average cyclonic energy for the season up to this point, according to experts at Colorado State University (CSU).
And the season is only just reaching its peak, with the most active period historically running from mid-August through October, though the season does not officially end until November 30.
On Wednesday, Tropical Storm Mindy became the 13th named storm of the 2021 Atlantic hurricane season. Meanwhile, hurricane Larry is churning off the northeast coast and is expected to pass near southeastern Newfoundland, Canada, on Friday night.
Only four other years since satellites came into use in 1966 have had 13 or more named storms by September 8, according to Phil Klotzbach, a meteorologist and hurricane specialist at CSU. But 2020 remains slightly behind the pace of last year when there were already 17 named storms, he noted on twitter.
The average date for the 13th Atlantic named storm formation is 24 October.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden toured the devastation from hurricane Ida in New York and New Jersey, inspecting flooded homes that had been emptied of their ruined contents. He spoke about the urgent need to address climate change.
“And so, folks, we got to listen to the scientists and the economists and the national security experts,” Biden said in Queens. “They all tell us this is code red; the nation and the world are in peril.”
This year, the western United States has had another scorching hot summer that has led to a large wildfires, while the east has experienced deadly flash floods in Tennessee last month that killed at least 22 people and then another 82 fatalities from Ida.
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The statistics are awe inspiring.
Larry was the third hurricane with sustained winds of over 125 mph of 2021 Atlantic season, according to Jeff Masters and Bob Henson at Yale Climate Connections. Only three other Atlantic seasons on record have had three hurricanes with max winds of 125 or more by September 4; in 1933, 2005 and 2008, said Klotzbach.
Although scientists say the total number of tropical storms is not increasing, the warming climate is already increasing the number of hurricanes that reach intense levels.
“This trend is not new, it extends backs decades,” said Robert Hartwig, a hurricane insurance expert and director of the Risk and Uncertainty Management Center at the University of South Carolina.
Hurricane Andrew, which hit Miami in 1992 established the trend, he said, which has been reinforced every few years since then. He noted that Ida could take its place as the second or third most expensive hurricane disaster ever, behind only Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and Harvey in Houston in 2017.
As a result, “there’s no question that [insurance] rates are going to continue to rise,” he added. But so far rising rates in climate exposed areas have done little or nothing to deter increased development there.
“Societies and businesses and individuals are making the assessment that the advantages of locating in high-risk areas far outweigh the risks given the cost of managing that risk today,” said Hartwig.
To be sure, the insurance industry is predicting plenty of growth in those high-risk areas, according to a new Sigma Research report by Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest re-insurance companies.
Property insurance is forecast to grow by 5.3% annually with global insurance premiums rising to $1.3 trillion in 2040 from $450 billion in 2020, according to the study, based on more than a year of research by the company’s experts using the latest scientific data, economic studies and risk modeling.
Most of that is the result of economic development and urbanization, with the building of new homes, businesses and infrastructure exposed to climate risks “as weather-related catastrophes will likely become both more intense and frequent,” the study found.
Thomas Holzheu, Swiss Re’s chief economist for the Americas, told Univision that most of the added costs can be attributed to “us putting more stuff in nature’s way.”
In order to avoid an insurance crisis, Holzheu said “we, as a society, need to prepare for this … everything needs to change.”
That involves two key elements: hardening infrastructure, such as improving drainage systems and burying electricity lines underground to mitigate the impact of severe weather events, as well reducing carbon emissions by producing more energy for renewable sources such as wind and solar.
Otherwise, if we carry on with business as usual, he warned that the risk would grow until some properties in the highest risk areas become “uninsurable.”