Weather Experts Discuss Why Insurers, Others Need Better Warning Systems

August 13, 2010

Asia’s heavy monsoons, a record heatwave in Russia and severe droughts in Africa show the need for new yardsticks to rate extreme weather to guide everybody from road builders to insurance companies, a U.N. expert said on Friday.

Scales exist to measure the power of hurricanes or air quality, but there are none to quantify risks from heatwaves, floods and droughts which are likely to become more extreme and frequent because of global warming.

A series of disasters, including floods in Pakistan and mudslides in China, have followed droughts in Australia and a record number of high-temperature days in the eastern United States, said Ghassem Asrar of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

“The general conclusion is the magnitude, the severity and extent of extreme events will be greater, which means we have to prepare,” Asrar, director of the WMO’s World Climate Research Programme, told Reuters in an interview.

“We need to develop standards, or indices, with a degree of confidence in our assessment to deal with extreme weather,” he said. “In the case of hurricanes this is very developed and for heatwaves, drought or flooding there is a need to do the same.”

He said the insurance industry was interested in the issue and Willis Group Holdings, the world’s third largest insurance broker, was co-sponsoring a WMO workshop in Paris from Sept. 27 to 29 attended by climate scientists and statisticians.

The workshop, expected to attract about 100 people, would try to translate existing scientific models on extreme weather events into a quantitative scale that the public can easily understand.

“We will examine how very difficult scientific concepts can be boiled down into simple measures or yardsticks for the non-expert to use,” Asrar said.

Levels of Risk

The yardsticks should include a description of the level of probability — or conversely the uncertainty — associated with the predictions, he said.

The standards developed for assessing risks associated with such climate extremes will be published and could be used by national weather services worldwide to issue alerts.

“When they see it is based on sound scientific understanding they will promote it as part of their services. That is how we can get it into the mainstream and to the public,” Asrar said.

A longer time range is required to establish firmly whether the latest series of disasters matches projections of a U.N. panel which predicted more frequent and more intense extreme weather events because of global warming, Asrar said.

“We need to have enough evidence to connect the dots, to say ‘yes, this is the cause and the effect’,” he said.

A report by the panel in 2007 said it was at least 90 percent likely that most warming in the past 50 years was caused by mankind, a finding questioned by sceptics pointing to errors in it such as an exaggeration of the melt of Himalayan glaciers.

Pakistan’s floods, the worst in 80 years, have killed more than 1,600 people, forced 2 million from their homes and disrupted the lives of about 14 million.

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