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Weather Disasters Target N. America

October 10, 2012

By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY

The number of natural disasters per year has been rising dramatically on all continents since 1980, but most notably in North America where countries have been battered by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, searing heat and drought, a new report says.

The study being released today by Munich Re, the world's largest reinsurance firm, sees climate change driving the increase and predicts more disasters ahead. Making the link to climate change will likely add to the debate on global warming, its causes, consequences, and costs, which often fall to insurance firms to cover.

Whatever the causes, the report shows that if you thought the weather's been getting worse, you're right.

"North America is the continent with the largest increases in disasters," says Munich Re's Peter Roder.

The report focuses on weather disasters since 1980 in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Roder argues this report represents the first finding of a climate change "footprint" in the data from natural catastrophes.

Among the report's findings:

Insured losses in the USA due to thunderstorms alone in 2011 were the highest on record at an estimated $26billion, more than double the previous record set in 2010.

Insured losses from disasters globally averaged $9 billion a year in the 1980s. By the 2000s, the average soared to $36 billion per year. The costliest weather disasters in the USA since 1980, as defined by insured losses, have all been hurricanes, led by Katrina in 2005 ($62 billion) and Ike in 2008 ($18 billion).

Reinsurers such as Munich Re offer backup policies to companies writing primary insurance policies. That spreads risk, so the system can handle large losses from natural disasters.

Other experts take issue with Munich Re's findings.

"Thirty years is not an appropriate length of time for a climate analysis, much less finding causal factors like climate change," says Roger Pielke, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado.

Atmospheric scientist Clifford Mass of the University of Washington says once data are adjusted for population there is no recent upward trend in tornado or hurricane damages.

Roder says that even adjusting for population spread and increased property values, Munich Re still sees significant increases in the costs of weather disasters over the past few years.

Copyright 2012 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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