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Hurricane season’s late start made for an average year but a big insurance bill

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 12/1/2022 Rachel Koning Beals
© AP
LIVING WITH CLIMATE CHANGE

A late-bloomer Atlantic hurricane season that had 14 named storms and a handful of leftover monikers has officially ended now that the calendar flipped to December.

The season’s close left residents in the Florida Keys to celebrate with a ceremonial burning of hurricane warning flags as they do each year, even as residents along and near the state’s Gulf Coast and in Puerto Rico continue to struggle under the financial and emotional damage caused by the season’s biggest storms: Hurricanes Ian, Nicole and Fiona.

Don’t miss: Lost Sanibel causeway and ‘reversed’ Tampa Bay: Why Ian will rank among worst hurricanes in Florida history

Climate scientists acknowledge the uniqueness of this year’s season, including its quiet start and back-loaded major storms: Nicole was the first November hurricane to hit the United States in 40 years. But they stress that the longer-run risk patterns that most experts link to global warming from fossil-fuel burning continue to send up warnings.

Read: A retirement safe from climate change? Ask the tough questions about real estate and property insurance

The 2022 season had an unusually calm first half but made up for that with three destructive hurricanes in the second half, ending with an average number of named storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Atlantic season runs from June 1 until Nov. 30.

‘It is precisely hurricanes like Ian — very strong storms with extreme precipitation — that will occur more frequently in the future due to climate change.’ — Ernst Rauch, climate scientist with Munich Re

The broadest category of these types of storms is known as tropical cyclones: large storms with rotating winds and clouds that form over warm ocean water. They are known as tropical storms first, and then hurricanes of varying categories if they intensify in the Atlantic. They’re called typhoons in the Northwest Pacific.

This year’s Atlantic period recorded eight hurricanes with winds of at least 74 mph (119 kmh), and two storms intensified to major hurricanes with winds reaching at least 111 mph (179 kmh), NOAA says. An average hurricane season has 14 named storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes, according to the agency.

This season was notable for a record-tying inactive August. It was the first time since 1941 that the Atlantic Ocean has gone from July 3 to the end of August with no named storm, Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach says.

Since 1950, only 1997 and 1961 had no named storms in August.

The ire of Ian

In late September, Hurricane Ian, the strongest of this season, made landfall as a Category 4 storm in southwest Florida. Ian left nearly 150 deaths and a swath of destruction in its wake as it moved northeast across the state.

Then, after making its way back to the Atlantic, the storm headed north and struck South Carolina as a Cat 1 storm.

With its 150-mph (241-kph) maximum sustained winds, Ian tied for the fifth-strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the U.S., officials said.

Ian cut power to more than 2 million customers and presented an additional life-threatening hazard: inland flooding. Some parts of Florida experienced 5 to 6 inches of rain per hour.

How much did the 2022 hurricane season cost?

Because of Ian, even a relatively calm 2022 season was still an expensive one.

In all, this year’s hurricanes caused approximately $110 billion in damages, including insured losses in the magnitude of $65 billion, according to preliminary estimates from Munich Re, the global reinsurance company that insures the losses paid out by individual insurance companies that deal directly with consumers.

That positions the 2022 season in the North Atlantic to be the third-most expensive to date.

“2022 continues the trend of increasing losses from U.S. hurricanes in recent years,” said Ernst Rauch, climate scientist with Munich Re His team, and others, had predicted more 2022 hurricanes, which they had linked to La Niña conditions, a recurring seasonality.

“Just a single storm like Ian is enough to cause immense losses,” Rauch said. “This is not new, of course, but it is important. Because it is precisely hurricanes like Ian —very strong storms with extreme precipitation — that will occur more frequently in the future due to climate change.”

The 2022 hurricane season in the North Atlantic is shaping up as the third-most expensive to date.

The most expensive hurricane season to date for insurers was 2005, which had a series of storms including the notorious Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans. With overall losses of $175 billion and insured losses of $86 billion (both adjusted for inflation), Katrina is still the most expensive hurricane of all time. In total, the 2005 storm season destroyed assets of almost $240 billion, adjusted for inflation, of which only about half was insured.

Climate change and hurricanes: Don’t ignore the trends

As homeowners think about construction practices and insurance costs in coming decades, climate change must increasingly shape decisions. Tropical cyclones have been growing stronger worldwide over the past 30 years, and not just the big ones that most hear about.

New research finds that weak tropical cyclones have gotten at least 15% more intense in ocean basins where they occur around the world, said Wei Mei, assistant professor of earth, marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Shang-Ping Xie, a professor of climate science at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

The scientists, writing in a commentary for The Conversation, say storms that might have caused minimal damage a few decades ago are growing more dangerous as the planet warms.

And how is climate change impacting these storms? Warmer oceans provide more energy for storms to intensify. And the storms ultimately suck up more water that they dump on land. Select models point to powerful storms growing stronger, but intensity isn’t easy to document. The new study measures intensity by using the ocean currents beneath the storms.

Historically, flood water has accounted for the vast majority of all deaths during tropical cyclones that have made landfall in the U.S.

Last year’s deadly Hurricane Ida, which clobbered the U.S. South and then moved along the Atlantic coast for a second, major blow on New York and Northeastern U.S. points inland, including Philadelphia, made for an expensive 2021. Hurricanes are packing more precipitation due to warmer oceans, which pushes flooding inland.

In fact, water has accounted for the vast majority of all deaths during tropical cyclones that have made landfall in the U.S.: 83% of fatalities during storms from 2016 to 2018 were water-related, meaning the result of floods not the initial storm surge itself, according to NOAA.

Importantly, hurricanes are only part of the climate change-impacted severe weather that is costing the globe in lives, insurance payouts and lost productivity.

Because of Ida, the Texas power outage, and a deadly Canadian heat wave, 2021 was the sixth time within the past decade that global natural catastrophes topped $100 billion in insured losses.

The Associated Press contributed.

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