Munich Re has laid down a serious warning about the economic and human cost of climate change in the wake of 2020, whose North Atlantic hurricane season saw more storms than ever before, and a year in which natural catastrophe losses increased significantly.
According to the reinsurer, global losses from natural disasters in 2020 came to $210 billion, of which some $82 billion was insured. Both overall losses and insured losses were significantly higher than in the previous year (2019: $166 billion and $57 billion respectively).
“Record numbers for many relevant hazards are a cause for concern, whether we are talking about the severe hurricane season, major wildfires or the series of thunderstorms in the US,” said Torsten Jeworrek, member of the board of management at Munich Re.
“Climate change will play an increasing role in all of these hazards. Five years ago in Paris, the global community set itself the target of keeping global warming well below 2°C. It is time to act.”
According to the carrier’s analysis, the figures suggest that little progress has been made on global warming, as five years after the seminal Paris Climate Agreement, 2020 continued the series of very warm years.
The global mean temperature (January to November) in 2020 was around 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial levels (1880–1900) – just 0.01°C shy of 2016, the warmest year on record.
The regions north of the Arctic Circle experienced a sharp rise in temperature more than twice as high as the average global increase.
In parts of northern Siberia, there were extensive wildfires and temperatures of over 30°C.
“Even if the weather disasters for one year cannot be directly linked to climate change, and a longer period needs to be studied to assess their significance, these extreme values fit with the expected consequences of a decades-long warming trend for the atmosphere and oceans that is influencing risks,” added Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geo scientist at Munich Re.
“An increasing number of heatwaves and droughts are fuelling wildfires, and severe tropical cyclones and thunderstorms are becoming more frequent. Research shows that events such as this year’s heatwaves in northern Siberia are 600 times more likely to occur than previously.”
The hyperactive season in the Atlantic was a result of a number of factors, Munich Re noted. Aside from unusually warm sea surface temperatures, in which climate change already plays a part, La Niña conditions in the equatorial Pacific also acted as a driver. La Niña is the cold extreme of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and creates atmospheric conditions that promote the development of cyclones in the North Atlantic.
It added that one striking feature of the 2020 season was rapid intensification before landfall – a phenomenon that has been observed in several landfalling storms in recent years.
Also unusual was the strength of storms that developed towards the end of the season, typically when both tropical cyclone frequency and intensity start to wind down.
Seven cyclones developed in October and November, five of which became hurricanes, including Iota, which was the last and strongest hurricane of the season, developing to a Category 5 storm in November.
Once again, a series of large wildfires raged across the western United States in 2020, including record-setting fires (in terms of area burned) in California and Colorado. Drought conditions, particularly across northern California and the Pacific Northwest, helped fuel dozens of large fires. 47 people lost their lives due to the fires.
Munich Re said it was notable that damaging wildfires occurred not just in California, but across the rest of the western US as well. Colorado saw its three largest fires, in terms of acres burned, in 2020, while wildfires in Washington and Oregon also set new records.
In Oregon alone, about 4,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by wildfires, becoming one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history. In total, losses from the wildfires in the western United States amounted to some $16 billion, of which $11 billion was insured.