Houston,We have a..voooshhhh
April 18, 2016
Record flooding in a city that has seen it’s share of hurricanes. Think about that.
Houston is in the midst of an unbelievable deluge, with already more rainfall in a single day than any hurricane to ever hit the hurricane-prone city. The National Weather Service has called Monday’s flooding “historic.”
More than 21,000 square miles of southeast Texas is now in a flash flood warning, but the worst flooding seems to be occurring in western parts of the Houston metro area. More than 17 inches of rainfall has fallen in just the past 24 hours in some neighborhoods, with about 1 foot of rain coming just since midnight—already making Monday the rainiest day ever in Houston before noon. At Houston’s George Bush International Airport, 11.16 inches fell by 10 a.m., breaking the all-time daily record of 10.34 inches set on June 26, 1989. And it’s still falling. More rain is in the forecast for the next 36 hours or so.
Officials in Harris County, where Houston is located, have declared a disaster area and estimate at least 1,000 homes have already been flooded. More than half the watersheds in Harris County are experiencing significant flooding, with at least one cresting above its estimated 500-year flood mark, a new all-time record. Bayous and creeks have overtopped levees in some parts of Houston, and the water continues to rise, with downtown Houston also in the direct path of some of the worst floodwaters.
Man-made climate change is worsening some extreme weather events, according to a report made public Friday by a top science group in Washington.
The report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found the clearest links between climate change and heat waves, droughts and heavy rain and snowstorms. Scientists found less evidence for climate change impact on other weather events, such as tornadoes, hurricanes and wildfires.
This is “the first definitive ranking of what events can be attributed to climate change,” said Marshall Shepherd, a University of Georgia meteorologist and report contributor. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) “brings a gold standard to the assessment of the science,” he said.
The NAS has advised the federal government on science since the 1860s.
But Dr. Shepherd my _________(fill in the blank with: uncle, favorite blog, news network, favorite twitterologist) says it is a hoax, unproven and so-on. Once you filter through the noise, the signal is clear. The majority of peer review literature notes that there is a anthropogenic “steroid” on top of the naturally-varying climate. For example, home run frequency and length varied naturally in Major League Baseball, but after the Steroid era the influence was seen in the home run statistics. But was a certain baseball players 300th homerun caused by steroids? That’s an ill-posed question. The National Academy of Sciences released a report, Attribution of Extreme Events in the Context of Climate Change. Within its key findings, we find an expert plea to make the “Was it Caused By Climate Change” question extinct. Some key findings from the report are summarized, but the full 144-page report can be downloaded here. I was honored to be one of the experts that authored the report.
Asking the right questions. “Was that event caused by climate change?” just cannot be answered because natural variability almost always plays some role. When a team plays basketball, there is a natural variability in the outcome of each game, but as team practices and attains better players, there is a bit more “signal” on the potential outcome of the game. More appropriate questions are:
Are events of this severity becoming more or less likely because of climate change?
To what extent was the storm more or less intense because of climate change?
In the aftermath of the German and Canadian floods, the victims, the insurers, the media, the politicians and the scientists were all asking the same questions: What caused them? Was it the relentless buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide? Could “extreme” weather events become the new normal or were they once-a-millennium acts of god?
In Munich Re’s offices, there wasn’t much debate as the claims cheques flew out the door: The higher frequency of extreme weather events is influenced by climate change; and recent climate change is largely due to burning hydrocarbons. “I’m quite convinced that most climate change is caused by human activity,” says Peter Höppe, head of geo-risks research at Munich Re.
His statement is not remarkable, even though the big American insurers don’t like to put the words “climate change” and “anthropogenic” in the same sentence. What is remarkable is that Munich Re first warned about global warming way back in 1973, when it noticed that flood damage was increasing. It was the first big company to do so—two decades before the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit triggered a planetary anxiety attack by publicizing the concepts of “global warming” and “climate change.”
Munich Re, Swiss Re and the other reinsurers, along with the Lloyd’s of London insurance market (unrelated to the bank of the same name), stand out from the rest of the business world by being on the same page as scientists on climate change. What’s more, while most of the planet has its head in the sand about the reality and requirements of global warming, the reinsurance industry has already moved on to mastering the math on other catastrophes.
Höppe is compact, intense and enthusiastic. A bit rumpled, like a scientist from Central Casting, he loves to back up his statements with official sources, jumping up every few minutes during an interview to retrieve documents. The 1973 document he prints out for me is a source of pride within the company, which bills itself as “the first alerter to global warming.” The warning notes “the rising temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere [as a result of which glaciers and the polar caps recede, surfaces of lakes are reduced and ocean temperatures rise].” It points to the “rise of the CO2 content of the air, causing a change in the absorption of solar energy.”
The warning ends with a pledge: “We wish to enlarge on this complex of problems in greater detail, especially as—as far as we know—its conceivable impact on the long-range risk trend has hardly been examined to date.”
The pledge was fulfilled. Munich Re has been examining climate change since then, compiling the world’s most extensive database on natural disasters, covering some 33,000 events and drawing on research by its own staff and more than 200 other sources. “There hasn’t been any industry or company that has addressed climate change this early,” Höppe says.
How did Munich Re and the other reinsurers get it right so early? The answer, in a word, is fear—fear of losses that could destroy their business. No industry has more incentive to know the effects of climate change than the reinsurance and insurance industries.