Climate Hazards on the Rise
© 2007 FrontLine Security (Vol 2, No 2)

Weather-related hazardous events have always affected responders but the frequency of these natural ­disasters has been increasing – from 2-4 per year in earlier decades to about 12 per year in the last decade (with considerable year-to-year variability).

May 2007 - Lake City, Florida. The Florida Bugaboo Fire rages out of control as firefighters wait for a helicopter to bring a load of water. (Photo: Mark Wolfe/FEMA)

Natural disasters are indeed ­disastrous, causing considerable variability from year to year, such as in 1869, when weather storms over the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River areas caused the loss of at least 235 lives. The following year, 335 vessels were wrecked and 210 lives lost. In 1871, to reduce this continued loss of life, the Government of Canada reacted by establishing the Meteorological Service of Canada to ­provide storm warnings.

The first billion-dollar Canadian natural disaster occurred in 1996, when heavy rains caused a flash flood, resulting in the loss of 10 lives in Saguenay, Quebec. The following year, the slower accumulation of water in the Red River created another massive flood in Manitoba, with 4 deaths and again over $1billion in costs. The Eastern Canada ice storm of 1998 was responsible for at least 28 deaths, over 900 injuries and economic costs of approximately $5.4 billion.

Seasonal droughts on the Prairies caused billion-dollar impacts in both the 1970’s and 80’s, and more recently in 2001 and 2002, resulting in an estimated $3.6 billion decrease in agricultural production during those two years.

Although not billion-dollar events, many other weather-related hazards have greatly impacted Canada in recent times. Between 1992 and 2005, 14 hailstorms and associated heavy rains resulted in over $0.7 billion in insurance claims in Alberta – the biggest events, two successive weeks in 1996 in Calgary and a 2004 storm in Edmonton, sustained damages of over $100 million for each city. Calgary was hit again in June 2005, costing insurance companies $247 million. Annually, about 80 tornadoes cause death and destruction across Canada. Some examples include: Barrie, Ontario (1985, 12 deaths), Edmonton, Alberta (1987, 29 deaths) and Pine Lake, Alberta (2000, 12 deaths).

In September 2003, Hurricane Juan ravaged the east coast, hitting Nova Scotia with a sustained wind speed of 160 km/h and gusts of up to 230 km/h, causing waves in excess of 20 metres. Widespread damage was reported and more than 300,000 people went without power for over a week – at least 8 lives were lost during that event.

6 June 2007 - Alberta - Flooding from heavy rains turned Calgary's busy Deerfoot Parkway into a lake.

The high winds and rains of this past winter caused major damage to the forests and parks near Vancouver resulting in contaminated water supplies.

Ontario has also seen its share of heavy rains, as in 2004 when a line of severe thunderstorms that swung eastward across southern Ontario, leaving a trail of damages totalling over $500 million – the greatest insured loss in the province’s history. Sewer backups are a major reason for claims after such heavy rains. The Peterborough area alone suffered $87 million in insurance claims.

The United States has also seen an escalating number of major weather-related disasters. The number of events costing greater than $US 1billion, adjusted for inflation, has changed from 12 in the 1981-90 period, to 37 in the 1991-2000 period, and with 17 more events in the 2001-2005 period.

During these same periods, the total estimated economic costs of these events has also risen – from $US 102 billion to 195 billion. Three very major events stand out – the drought of 1988 ($62B), Hurricane Andrew of 1992 ($32B) and Hurricane Katrina of 2005 (more than $100B). If the estimated 7,700 lives lost during the 1988 drought are excluded, the number of deaths per five year period has also increased from less than 200 to more than 1500 in each of the past five year periods.

While very large disasters, such as Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami are, fortunately, fairly rare, the frequency of disasters has been rising rapidly. From a global average total of about 10 per year in the period 1900-1940, to 65 per year in the 1960’s, to 200 per year in the 1980’s, to almost 280 per year in the 1990’s, the total has skyrocketed to 470 per year for the 2000-2003 period. In economic costs, average annual amounts over a 10 year period have increased from US$4 billion per year in the 1950’s, to $13 billion per year in the 1970’s and to $65 billion per year in the 1990’s – and costs continue to escalate in this decade.

Natural disasters in 2004 and 2005 are estimated to have caused economic losses totalling US$145 billion and $185 billion respectively. Weather and weather-related events (including: floods; storms, which includes hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, mid-latitude winter storms; droughts; wildfires and most avalanches and landslides) trigger more than 75% of all disaster events. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes comprise only about 8% of all events but their impacts, per event, are much greater.

The onset of the rainy season has brought severe weather to much of South Asia, killing more than 500 people in storms and floods in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan in June. Flash flooding is a compilation in these cyclone-prone areas. 

June 30 - Unrelenting rains hampered Pakistani rescue efforts to provide relief to a million people hit by a cyclone, as more areas in the country's southwest are inundated. 

What is the explanation for these escalating costs? Although we often call them “natural” hazards, there are major social and demographic factors. Global and North American populations are increasing and there has generally been more exposure of people to hazards, putting more people and communities at risk. People are also moving, by choice or ­circumstances, to cities and other more hazardous zones, along coasts, river banks and mountain slopes. The growing inequality between poor and wealthy ­sectors of society and the proportionately growing number of more and more ­vulnerable poor also influences these numbers, as witnessed during Katrina.

There is also more expensive infrastructure being damaged. In urban regions (and particularly in very large cities), complex infrastructure systems that make life and economic activity possible, increase the vulnerability of populations to disruptions caused by natural hazards. Due to the all-too-common limitations of storage space, commercial activities are becoming interdependent – and thus vulnerable – including relying more heavily on the just-in-time delivery of people and vital goods such as food and medicine.

Vulnerability to these hazards has increased through human interventions, such as deforestation, thereby increasing risks of landslides or flooding, and through the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere causing climate change.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report concluded that the average rate of global temperature change over the past 50 years was 0.13°C per decade – and primarily due to human activities. With these warming temperatures has come a higher frequency of heavy precipitation events in some areas, while many regions face increased droughts, and yet others see intense tropical cyclone (hurricane) activity on the rise.

Looking ahead to the coming few decades, the IPCC projects further warming of about 0.2°C per decade. By the end of this century, global mean temperatures, based on “best estimates,” are projected to rise between 1.8 and 4.0°C (a one Celsius degree rise in temperature is equivalent to a 1.8 Fahrenheit degree rise), resulting in rising sea levels and increased frequency of heat waves, heavy precipitation events, intense tropical cyclones, and droughts.

Where extreme weather events become more intense and/or more frequent, the economic and social costs of those events will be substantial in directly affected areas.  

In dealing with natural hazards, the political focus has generally been on response and recovery. Some focus has also been on preparedness, but little effort has been directed to prevention/mitigation. Based on the recent impact of weather-related hazards in Canada, it is clear that Canada is not as well adapted as it could and should be – nor do we seem to be making the necessary investments in prevention and mitigation. The term “adaptation,” defined by the IPCC as “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities” is used almost synonymously with the term “mitigation” in the disaster management literature.

Under the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention and, more importantly, recognizing the reality of a changing climate, Canada has a commitment to “formulate, implement, publish and ­regularly update national…programmes containing…measures to ­facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change” (Article 4).  

Considering that much of the Canadian political debate on climate change has focused on emission reduction targets, and emergency management organizations spend their energy on mitigating terrorism while responding to natural hazards after-the-fact, adaptation to climate change and disaster management (particularly its prevention and mitigation measures), seem to be dangerously overlooked areas of public policy

In the vernacular of the practitioner, loss prevention approaches are somewhat arbitrarily grouped as structural and non-structural measures. Structural measures include such things as building dams, seawalls, levees and other engineered structures that can be effective mechanisms for protecting communities.

It is important that building codes reflect current knowledge of how the ­climate is changing, and not be based on some previous norms. In many cases, low-cost disaster safety retrofits can be made to buildings. Informed populations are better able to manage nature’s hazards and establish a culture of preparedness when non-structural measures include land-use planning (designed to account for future climate risks such as sea level rise) and public education and awareness.

Based on our governments’ primary role of protecting citizens from impending dangers, it is important that warnings and information for facilitating disaster mitigation and climate-change adaptation be current. They must be founded upon the best scientific predictions of future states of the environment – both as they will naturally occur and as they will respond to human influence. We must recognize that the length of the useful prediction needs to exceed the potential response time of communities to take preventive actions. For example, the prediction of a tornado or flash flood will be only minutes to hours ahead of the event; therefore the potential response expected can only be to move to safety. However, the prediction of an event or a warning of an occurrence that will happen over the next few days, allows for more comprehensive responses. Other actions, such as changing codes or practices take months to years – predictions on that time scale must be sought and provided whenever possible.

Another element of dealing with natural hazards is risk transfer, whereby disaster relief is provided and there is an opportunity to purchase insurance against the potential damage from the hazard.  We also need research and education into strengthening our national, regional and municipal adaptive capacity and into preparing current and scientifically probable hazard assessments. National building codes need updating and community resilience needs to be improved, based on local strategies. These must include local planning and enhancing action by individuals and families all the way through to personal preparedness and disaster safety knowledge.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) was created in the 1990s by the insurance community to address these rising disaster losses. It mission is to reduce loss of life and property caused by severe weather and earthquakes through multi-disciplinary research and education thus providing an essential foundation for effective action. Some present ICLR initiatives include: disaster safe housing research; disaster risk management; the role of government ­science; improving community action; and public education. The ICLR works with the Canadian insurance, academic and business communities and governments at all levels to reduce the impacts of hazards, including those being changed by the climate. In this context, there is a need for integrated and comprehensive national strategies for disaster mitigation and climate change adaptation and for research programs to support governments’ and individuals’ roles in making informed choices.

Professor Gordon McBean, Ph.D., FRSC, is Director of Policy Studies at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction at The University of Western Ontario.
© FrontLine Security 2007