When it comes to hurricanes in the U.S., large-scale trends are not in our favor. In fact, unless action is taken to curb both global warming and coastal development, the American economy may be set to take a perilous bashing from stronger storms, rising seas and too much high value, high-risk property lying in harms' way.
By the end of the century, a hurricane that strikes the eastern United States could cause up to three times more economic damage than a hurricane that strikes today, climate researchers warn in a new study.
If the world doesn’t drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and Americans don’t move to safer ground, the U.S. could suffer an eight-fold jump in average annual financial losses from hurricanes by 2100, the study found.
In the study, published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the scientists from Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research show that future hurricane-related losses for American families, companies and communities could grow faster than the overall U.S. economy — meaning the country won’t be able to counteract the damages from extreme weather events by creating more jobs and wealth.
Image: potsdam institute for climate impact research
“We find that hurricane losses have risen and will rise faster than the economy,” Tobias Geiger, the paper’s lead author and a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute, told Mashable.
“The impacts of climate change cannot be simply economically outgrown," he said.
In the U.S. alone, hurricanes caused $400 billion in estimated losses between 1980 and 2014, accounting for more than half of all weather-related economic losses, the German reinsurance giant Munich Re last year.
Damages from other extreme weather events — including floods, wildfires, tornadoes and droughts — are also on the rise due to both human-caused global warming and unchecked development into floodplains, fire-prone forests and waterfronts.
Image: GABRIELLE LURIE/AFP/Getty Images
In 2015, the U.S. experienced 10 weather and climate disaster events that each caused $1 billion in total damages and costs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s about twice the annual average of 5.2 billion dollar events experienced from 1980 to 2015.
And this year is already on track to outpace 2015 in the number of these expensive disasters. As of July, the country has suffered eight such events, including two flooding and six severe storm events — not including the devastating floods in southern Louisiana that have killed at least 13 people and led to 40,000 rescues.
Geiger said that few other studies have projected future U.S. damages from hurricanes in a comparable way to the Potsdam Institute’s research.
But Geiger said his team made a novel finding: That hurricane-related losses in the U.S. will grow faster than per-capita income growth, so that even if the United States grows wealthier as a nation, it will be no better protected from the wrath of warming-fueled hurricanes.
“Some people hope that a growing economy will be able to compensate for the damages caused by climate change — that we can outgrow climate change economically instead of mitigating it,” Anders Levermann, one of the study’s authors, said in a press release.
“But what if damages grow faster than our economy? What if climate impacts hit faster than we are able to adapt?”
Image: Getty Images
Kerry Emanuel, a meteorologist at MIT and a prominent researcher examining global warming-related trends in hurricanes, said the study is “important” because it shows that the U.S. can’t compensate for increasing hurricane damages solely by growing the economy.
Emanuel contributed research on the synthetic storm events used in the study and reviewed an earlier draft.
“This adds urgency to the need to revise existing policies that inadvertently promote migration to and building within hurricane-prone coastal regions,” he told Mashable in an email.
Address climate change and coastal development
The Potdsam Institute researchers developed statistical damage models that linked a hurricane’s wind speed, the size of the exposed population and per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) to reported storm losses. They also studied information on historical hurricane tracks for the eastern U.S. to determine the connections between storm damages and the other three indicators.
The team used those findings to analyze thousands of potential hurricane tracks that could affect the Gulf and Atlantic Coast regions through 2100, using different degrees of global warming.
Image: potsdam institute for climate impact research
When it comes to the rise in annual financial losses from hurricanes, about one-third of the losses could be the result of global warming, while the remaining two-thirds could come from “increased vulnerability on the socio-economic side,” Geiger said in an email interview.
Geiger said the institute’s research shows that adaptation measures — such as storm surge barriers, wind-resistant housing and floodgates — won’t be enough to keep the U.S. or other hurricane-prone nations safe in the warming future.
To fully hold costs down, we would have to limit the magnitude and pace of global warming, he said.
Reducing emissions of harmful greenhouse gases that cause global warming is perhaps even more essential to limiting the future damage of hurricanes, Geiger said.
“Although improving adaptation efforts can reduce further harm, it is important to increase climate mitigation in order to prevent or damp still-avoidable consequences,” Geiger said.
Editor's Note: This story has been edited to remove the quotes from a researcher, Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who felt he had been misquoted as disagreeing with the new study's findings. Pielke's research, in fact, is consistent with the study's findings about future storm losses, he said on Thursday.