THE MIRROR OF MEDIA

Unusual Weather We’re Having, Ain’t It?


A scene in The Wizard of Oz finds Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow in a poppy meadow with snow coming down. The Cowardly Lion says, “unusual weather we’re having, ain’t it?” If Bert Lahr, who played Lion in the film, were alive, he might say the same thing today. Unusual weather. But considering the role of climate change, this abnormal weather actually might become the new norm.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has reported that the past seven years—including the first nine months of 2021—are set to be warmest ever recorded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that sea levels rose by 0.14 inches per year from 2006-2015, more than twice the rate (0.06 inches/year) in the 20th century. Coastal locations in the United States are experiencing flooding at high tide three to nine times more frequently than half a century ago. And many sources agree that there is statistical evidence that confirms the role of anthropogenic influence on climate phenomena.

Because recent extreme weather events are so destructive and so frequent, insurers have been forced to view natural catastrophes in a new light. It used to be that insurer focus was on understanding the chances and strength of “primary perils:” hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. Other events were termed “secondary perils” because they did not cause billion-dollar losses. But secondary perils are no longer “secondary”—damage and destruction from inland floods, atmospheric rivers, wildfires, heat, drought, severe convective storms, hail, mudslides, avalanches and extreme cold—now exceed the toll from primary perils.

Extreme Weather in 2021

The catastrophic rain lashing northwest Washington state and southwest British Columbia has been described as apocalyptic. This is the second of two occurrences in two months dumping rain in northern California and Washington, causing mudslides, flooding and so much erosion that highways were covered with debris and untold amounts of rich topsoil slid into the ocean. The rain resulted in damages of $50 million in one county alone.

Wildfires in Oregon destroyed a million acres more than they did in 2020, which at the time was the worst year in the state’s history. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire turned into July’s largest wildfire in the United States, and was the third largest wildfire in Oregon since 1900. With loss from fire covered by insurance policies, the infernos will likely result in premium increases.

Interestingly, heat is not the only problem. In February, temperatures in parts of Texas dropped to 9 degrees Fahrenheit—a drop triggered by exceptional arctic air mass. The sub-freezing chill was extreme in both magnitude and duration: Austin set a new record, with 144 consecutive hours below freezing. The corresponding spike in demand for power resulted in 3.5 million businesses and homes lacking heat, while frozen pipes left them without water. As power went out across the state, the most vulnerable populations were exposed to the elements, leading to the loss of 200 lives and an estimated $18 billion in insurance losses.

The Global Nature of Climate Change

While various states across the nation have faced an increase in extreme weather, these events are not confined to the United States. Heat extremes made the summer of 2021 unbearable in many parts of the world. In fact, the Middle East is heating up at twice the global average. In Kuwait, meteorologists have commented 50 degrees Celsius was unheard of until 2016—and in the past five years, temperatures have regularly reached 50. On June 22, the Kuwaiti district of Nuwaiseeb recorded the highest temperature in the world so far this year at 53.2 degrees Celsius.

June in the northern hemisphere was also exceptionally hot. In British Columbia, temperatures of 121 degrees Fahrenheit resulted in close to 600 deaths. Portland and Seattle experienced record high temperatures, reaching 112 degrees Fahrenheit and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively. And although Siberia is synonymous with a vast frozen wasteland, this year’s Siberian summer was a scorcher. On June 20, the town of Verkhoyansk hit 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit—the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic Circle. The coldest city on earth, Yakutsk, where it has been as low as -64 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, had an “airpocalypse” this summer. Elevated temperatures in Yakutsk set off forest fires that covered the city with deadly chemicals: benzene, hydrogen cyanide and ozone, all of which are capable of entering the bloodstream and causing organ damage.

Figures don’t Lie, but Liars Figure

Yet even with all this evidence, there are still over 100 members of Congress who deny the reality of climate change. Counties in Oklahoma have the highest proportion of climate change skeptics, exemplified by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) once throwing a snowball in the chamber to pronounce global warming a hoax. But increases in insurance costs from extreme weather phenomena will impact Oklahoma’s residents—and indeed, all Americans—regardless of political beliefs. So, as we think about what to do with climate change, let’s remember that we are entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts.

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