Going to Extremes: Why Weather Patterns Are Becoming More Expensive

Mon, Jun 10, 2013 - 10:15am
The following is an excerpt of the Browning Newsletter, a key source of information in describing the relationship between macro weather-related trends and their potential impact upon energy, commodities, and the wider global economy. To subscribe to her monthly newsletter, click here.

It’s June – time to publish the economic impact summaries of last year’s weather. They are not pleasant reading.

In the United States, there were 3,527 monthly weather records broken for heat, rain, and snow in the US. That’s even more than the 3,251 records smashed in 2011; some of the newly broken records had stood for 30 years or more. According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), every state in the union saw record-breaking extreme events. The nation saw the hottest March on record in the contiguous US, and July was the hottest single month ever recorded in those lower 48 states. In particular, the US had:

• The worst drought in 50 years across the nation’s grain belt, with over 1,300 US counties in 29 states declared drought disaster areas.

• Wildfires burned more than 9.2 million acres in the US, and destroyed hundreds of homes. The average size of the fires set an all-time record of 165 acres per fire, exceeding the prior decade’s 2001-2010 average of approximately 90 acres/fire.

• Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge height (13.88 feet) broke the all-time record in New York Harbor, and ravaged communities across New Jersey and New York with floodwaters and winds. The cost of Hurricane Sandy reached an estimated $79 billion for federal aid to cover damages, recovery and measures to cope with future storms in New York and New Jersey. However, that price tag doesn’t include health-related impacts.

Overall, U.S. taxpayers paid nearly $100 billion responding to damage caused by last year’s extreme weather events associated with climate change, about $1,100 per taxpayer, according to an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The analysis shows taxpayers spent, through the federal government, nearly $100 billion on climate change cleanup more than either education or transportation.

Michelle Yonetani et. al. Global Estimates 2012

This is part of a long-term trend. Recently, international insurance giant MunichRe concluded that from 1980 through 2011, the frequency of weather-related extreme events in North America nearly quintupled, rising more rapidly than anywhere else in the world. The insurance industry estimates that 2012 was the second most expensive in U.S. history for climate-related disasters, with damages totaling more than 9 billion.

The burden of paying for the damage created by these weather events has shifted away from private insurers and is falling more heavily on America’s taxpayers. Over the past five years, taxpayers spent three times more than private insurers to pay for recovery from climate damages. According to Dan Lashof, the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Program, “This single ticket expense now tops the list of non-defense discretionary federal spending”.

The US had 90% of the global disaster costs of 2012. However, there was enough devastation to go around. The world experienced 900 major disasters in 2012, compared to the average annual number of 800 disasters worldwide since 1980. The weather forced 32.4 million people to leave their homes, with the majority displaced by flooding from monsoons and typhoons in Asia. Over half of the displaced millions were in India, Nigeria, China and the Philippines.

People displaced by disasters, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council, May 2013

At that, the cost of global natural and man-made disasters in 2012 is actually significantly lower than last year’s total. According to a report released by reinsurer Swiss Re, total economic losses from disasters — naturally occurring or otherwise — is estimated to be at least 0 billion. The total financial loss from disasters did not near 2011’s total of 0 billion — the highest in history — or 2010’s 8 billion.

Why are the costs of disaster rising so much?

The reason is due to more weather-extreme events, which are being caused by three main factors:

1. Volcanic eruptions (3 – 7 year duration) – As I've mentioned previously, large volcano eruptions temporarily alter climate. If the eruption pours ash and chemicals into the stratosphere, it takes two to seven years to precipitate out. For those two to seven years, the aerosols and the clouds they create block out incoming sunlight. The atmosphere below cools. It holds less moisture. Air pressure is changed and this in turn alters the strength and direction of winds.

Since 2006, we have seen increased volatility in both Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and in the North Pacific. For seven years, large eruptions distorted normal airflow, altering the Arctic Oscillation from decades-long patterns. These distortions have been felt throughout the Northern Hemisphere but have had their greatest impact on North America, which is directly downwind from the eruptions. Two extremely cold winters and volatile springs followed the giant 2009 eruption of Alaska’s Mt. Redoubt. The 2011 eruptions of Iceland’s Grimsvótn and Russia’s Sheveluch produced the last two bizarre winters and springs. (Snow on Memorial Day!)

2. Extreme Arctic sea ice melt and its effect on the jet stream (long-term impact) – Scientists have been reporting the dramatic reduction of the Arctic sea ice for more than a decade. Last year, the sea ice dropped to a new low record, 1.27 million square miles (3.29 million square kilometers) or 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum. (Satellite measuring of the ice pack began in 1979.) This ice loss is the equivalent in size to Europe minus Scandinavia and Russia or 45% of the contiguous US. Now scientists are correlating this dramatic change in the Arctic with the volatility of the polar jet stream.

In 2012, the Artic Sea ice was only 51% of the size that was normal between 1979-2000

There are several reasons for this dramatic reduction of Arctic sea ice. Most of us have read about the impact of man-made greenhouse gasses and the studies to determine how much they are contributing to this trend. At the same time two natural factors, both long term, are warming the Arctic. The Atlantic is in the middle of the warm phase of a 70-year-long Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation. In this, the oceans tropical currents are flowing very rapidly and warming northern waters. Similarly, in the Pacific, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation has entered the negative phase, which creates cooler conditions in the tropics and steers warmer water toward the poles. Both oceans are pouring warmer waters into the Arctic basin. History shows that this trend should continue for at least another 20 years.

Dr. Jennifer Francis, professor of Atmospheric Science at Rutgers University has explained how this affects the jet stream in “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” published in Geophysical Research Letters, on 21 February, 2012. Arctic ice reflects sunlight while open waters absorb the heat. As fall comes, the stored ocean heat is released into the atmosphere, heating the autumn air by 2–5˚ and altering air pressure. This alters upper air circulation by:

Slowing Arctic winds – The flow of the circumpolar winds that circle the Arctic and trap the cold in the north are slower and weaker. More of the frigid polar air escapes south.

Increasing tendency to make contorted high-amplitude loops. The jet stream fluctuates as it circles the Arctic, dipping south and arching north. What Francis shows is that in years when the Arctic ice is severely reduced, the size of these north south loops increases. The polar jet stream soars further north and plunges further south. Dr. Francis’s work concentrates in North America and shows that we are seeing the jet stream fluctuating at its most extreme along the East and West Coast.

Both of these changes slow weather patterns. Weaker zonal winds mean they don’t push weather fronts as hard and fast. Instead of zipping from the west to east, the weather patterns linger in one place, prolonging the heat wave or cold spell. Storm fronts linger, dropping heavy precipitation and creating blizzards or floods. Similarly, the giant dips in the jet stream (called Rossby waves) move much slower than shallow dips. The cold air or heat waves stall. This creates more extreme weather – hotter, drier summer heatwaves or prolonged winter and springtime chills and storms.

source: https://ipcc-wg2.gov/SRX/images/uploads/SREX-SPMbrochure_FINAL.pdf

Unfortunately, the melting Arctic ice pack is at least partially caused by Atlantic and Pacific Ocean patterns that will last another 20 years. This means the extreme weather patterns caused by slowing air circulation should last another couple of decades.

3. The Human Factor – The third factor that is causing an increase of extreme and expensive weather events is the human factor. People are living in high-risk areas. Frequently it is the poorest and most vulnerable members of society in these areas and this can cause severe weather events to become deadly.

Let me give an example: In 1995, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation switched to its warm phase, which according to NOAA research roughly doubles the numbers of Atlantic hurricanes. In 1996, one of my clients called and complained. He had built a new beach-side home and three hurricanes had brushed near it that year. All I could reply was, “Why do you think it’s called Cape Fear? Why do you think the Native Americans never lived there?”

During the cool, more benign phase of the AMO, the Atlantic had been relatively quiet and millions of Americans had moved to beautiful coastal regions. By the mid-Nineties, half of the US population lived within 50 miles of a coastline. When the AMO once again turned warm, this left billions of dollars of US property in high-risk areas. The US has since increased its exposure.

This is not unique to the USA. China’s two major exporting cities, Hong Kong and Shanghai are near the Pacific coast and were brushed by typhoons last year. India’s economic powerhouse city of Mumbai is also coastal and as the India Ocean increases in heat, the city has been flooded repeatedly.

According to the UN ’s 2012 IPCC report, a disaster risk combines not just weather and climate events but also exposure and vulnerability.

Exposure − With the shift in the AMO in 1995, Atlantic Rim precipitation patterns have shifted. Coastal and flood plain regions in the Americas, Europe and West Africa are facing increased exposure to floods, heatwaves and, particularly in North Africa and the US interior, drought. Since the shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation in 2006, low-lying regions of Asia and Australia face greater exposure of storms and floods while most of the western Americas face increased risk of drought.

Vulnerability − To the extent that societies do not adjust to the new climate shifts, they are increasing their vulnerability. Building codes that reflect the past 30 years, rather than the past decade do not provide adequate protection from the new strains on infrastructure. As urbanization increases, with hundreds of millions of people moving into ramshackle urban slums, the vulnerability of societies and economies increases.


1. The payouts for disaster related events and the number of billion dollar damage events is increasing and has increased dramatically since 2009.

2. Overall, global weather has not necessarily become more extreme. The scientific community is debating the issue. However, statistics do show that the weather is becoming more extreme in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

3. The trend for the increase of extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere due to volcanic distortion of polar weather will fade out in another couple of years, unless we have more large eruptions. The trend for more extreme weather due to the prolonged impact of storms or droughts has another 20 years or more to run.

4. Because of the shifts in the Atlantic and Pacific long-term oscillations, new areas are exposed to extreme weather. This increases their vulnerability and their risk of disasters.

Source: Browning Newsletter