Weather-related Natural Disasters: Should we be concerned about a reversion to the mean?

Professor Roger Pielke Jr (University of Colorado Boulder)

Roger is a long-term Research Fellow of Risk Frontiers and recently it was our pleasure to be able to host him, once again, in Sydney. During this visit, we were rewarded with an insightful seminar entitled Natural Disasters and Climate Change: The Science and the Politics. Below is a brief synopsis of some of the key points raised in Roger’s talk. A pdf of his presentation is available for those wanting further information.

We would also direct readers to Roger’s book entitled: The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change as the most accessible and thoughtful compendium of research in this area and of discussion as to the correct role of science in informing political debate and policy in contentious and important areas like global climate change. (

The world is presently in an era of unusually low weather disasters. This holds for the weather phenomena that have historically caused the most damage: tropical cyclones, floods, tornadoes and drought. Given how weather events have become politicized in debates over climate change, some find this hard to believe. Fortunately, government and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) analyses allow such claims to be adjudicated based on science, and not politics.  Here I briefly summarize recent relevant data.

Every six months Munich Re publishes a tally of the costs of disasters around the world for the past half year. This is an excellent resource for tracking disaster costs over time.  The data allows us to compare disaster costs to global GDP, to get a sense of the magnitude of these costs in the context of economic activity.  Using data from the UN, here is how that data looks since 1990, when we have determined that data is most reliable and complete.

The data shows that since 2005 the world has had a remarkable streak of good luck when it comes to big weather disasters, specifically:

  • From 2006 to present there have been 7/11 years with weather disasters costing less than 0.20% of global GDP.
  • The previous 11 years saw 6 with more than 0.20% of global GDP.
  • From 2006 to present there has be zero years with losses greater than 0.30% of global GDP.
  • The previous 11 years had 2, as did the 6 years before that, or about once every 4 years.
  • According to a simple linear trend over this time period, global disasters are 50% what they were 27 years ago, as a proportion of GDP.

Why has this occurred? Is it good luck, climate change or something else?

By disaggregating the data phenomenon by phenomenon we can get a better sense of why it is that disaster costs are, as a proportion of global GDP, so low in recent years.

A good place to start is with tropical cyclones, given that they are often the most costly weather events to occur each year.  The figure below shows global tropical cyclone landfalls from 1990 through 2016. These are the storms that cause the overwhelming majority of property damage. Since 1990 there has been a reduction of about 3 landfalling storms per year (from ~17 to ~14), which certainly helps to explain why disaster losses are somewhat depressed.

Even more striking is the extended period in the United States, which has the most exposure to tropical cyclone damage, without the landfall of an intense hurricane. The figure below shows the number of days between each landfall of a Category 3+ hurricane in the US, starting in 1900. As of this writing the tally is approaching 4500 days, which is a streak of good fortune not seen in the historical record.

A very conservative estimate of the effects of this “intense hurricane drought” is that the United States is some $70 billion in arrears with respect to expected hurricane damage since 2006. In fact, it is not widely appreciated but the US has seen a decrease of about 20% in both hurricane frequency and intensity at landfall since 1900. I urge caution placing too much significance on linear trends, as they are quite sensitive to start and end dates, but there is very little to indicate that tropical cyclones are either more frequent or intense.

Data on floods, drought and tornadoes are similar in that they show little to no indication of becoming more severe or frequent.  The IPCC concludes:

  • “There continues to be a lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency of floods on a global scale.”
  • “There is low confidence in observed trends in small spatial-scale phenomena such as tornadoes and hail.”
  • “There is low confidence in detection and attribution of changes in drought over global land areas since the mid-20th century.”

Thus, it is fair to conclude that the costs of disasters worldwide is depressed because, as the global economy has grown, disaster costs have not grown at the same rate. Thus, disaster costs as a proportion of GDP have decreased. One important reason for this is a lack of increase in the weather events that cause disasters, most notably, tropical cyclones worldwide and especially hurricanes in the United States.

Climate change, of course, is all too real and has a significant human component. The IPCC has concluded that there is evidence indicating that heat waves have become more common as too has extreme rainfall in some parts of the world.  Projections for the future suggest that some other types of extremes – including tropical cyclones, floods, drought and tornadoes – may yet become more intense or frequent. However, there is great uncertainty about how extremes will evolve in the climate future.

But we don’t need climate scenarios to be worried about more disasters. To the extent that people believe that we are presently in an era of large or unusual disasters, many will be in for a shock when large weather disasters again occur. And they will. A simple regression to the mean would imply disasters of a scale not seen worldwide in more than a decade.

Consider that 2005 saw weather disasters totaling 0.5% of global GDP. In 2017, if the world economy totaled $90 trillion (in a round number), then an equivalent amount of 2017 disaster losses to the proportional costs to 2005 GDP would be about $450 billion. That is about equivalent to Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Andrew, the 2011 Thailand floods, the 1998 Yangtze floods all occurring in one year plus about $100 billion more in other disaster losses. And there is no reason why we should consider 0.5% of GDP to be an upper limit. Think about that.

The world has had a run of good luck when it comes to weather disasters. That will inevitably come to an end. Understanding loss potential in the context of inexorable global development and long term climate patterns is hard enough.  It is made even more difficult with the politicized overlay that often accompanies the climate issue. Fortunately, there is good science and solid data available to help cut through the noise. Bigger disasters are coming – will you be ready?


Mohleji, S., & Pielke Jr, R. (2014). Reconciliation of trends in global and regional economic losses from weather events: 1980–2008. Natural Hazards Review, 15(4), 04014009.

Munich Re, 2017.  Natural catastrophe review for the first half of 2017

Murray, V., & Ebi, K. L. (2012). IPCC special report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation (SREX).

Pielke, R. (2014). The rightful place of science: disasters and climate change. (CSPO: ASU)

Stocker, T. F., et al. (2013). IPCC, 2013: climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change.

Weinkle, J., Maue, R., & Pielke Jr, R. (2012). Historical global tropical cyclone landfalls. Journal of Climate, 25:4729-4735.


Heatwave impacts and community responses

New South Wales in 2017 experienced one of its hottest summers on records including several Heatwave events. With the support of the Bureau of Meteorology and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, Risk Frontiers completed a study of the impacts of these events and community responses across Western Sydney and the Northern Rivers Region. The results are summarised in the following reports.

‘Astounding’: Shifting storms under climate change to worsen coastal perils

By Thomas Mortlock

This was the headline of a news report in the Sydney Morning Herald last week (July 20). The article (and others in the media recently) is based on a research article published by fellow OEH Coastal Process Node members UNSW Water Research Laboratory (Harley et al., 2017). The paper reports on observations of the June 2016 East Coast Low (ECL) storm along the NSW coast, and highlights the importance of storm wave direction in determining coastal erosion magnitude.

To quantify coastal impacts, the authors undertook repeat airborne measurements of beaches along the coast before and directly after the June 2016 ECL. At Narrabeen-Collaroy the erosion magnitude was the largest in four decades. They attribute this to the storm’s anomalous wave direction and call for greater attention – from both research and management – on the impacts of changing storm wave direction in a changing climate.

Agreement of observations and modelling

It is encouraging that observations from this work echo the same conclusions made by Risk Frontiers’ modelling study of this storm, published back in February in the open-access journal Water (

In this paper, we compared the impacts of a ‘regular’ ECL – with waves coming from the south-east, with the anomalous 2016 event where waves came from the east to north-east.

We demonstrated the reason for the large erosion was the anomalous wave direction focussing energy at sections of the coastline not equilibrated with high wave exposure. This was particularly damaging at Collaroy because the easterly extension of Long Reef headland set up a mega rip-current circulation, lowering the beach and focussing erosion at this location (Figure 1).

This agrees with the recently-published observations of Harley et al. (2017) that sites in the south and central sections of beaches along the NSW coast suffered the worse beach losses, and that erosion at Collaroy-Narrabeen was the largest seen in four decades.

Figure 1 Modelled pattern of surface water currents at Collaroy-Narrabeen during the June 2016 ECL, showing the mega-rip forming off Collaroy. Inset photos (with locations shown on main figure) show severe erosion damage exactly at this location.

Changes to wave direction as the tropics expand

A number of media reports have linked this event to a sign of things to come, with the expectation that “storm direction will shift in the future with climate change”, but the mechanism for this is perhaps not clear.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a measured expansion of the tropics at a rate of about 0.5 – 1.0 degree latitude per decade, in both hemispheres (Lucas et al., 2014). Most Global Climate Models (GCMs) predict the expansion trend to continue with global warming.

As the tropics expand, more tropical-origin storms – like the 2016 ECL, tropical lows or tropical cyclones – are likely to become a more common feature of the storm wave climate along the NSW coast (outside the tropics), replacing the traditional storm types that have their origin in the Tasman Sea or Southern Ocean (Goodwin et al., 2016).

This means the average storm wave direction may shift towards the east or north-east (coming from), as opposed to the current south-east direction of most ECL storms.  As witnessed in June 2016, the storm wave direction is of key importance in determining erosion magnitude.

The topic of directional wave climate change and coastal response has been a core research theme for the past 30 years at the Marine Climate Risk Group at Macquarie University, a group with which Risk Frontiers works closely.

The Catalyst program Stormageddon, aired on ABC in July 2016, provides a good overview on this topic, featuring A/Prof Goodwin of the Marine Climate Risk Group (


Goodwin, I.D. et al. (2016), Tropical and extratropical-origin storm wave types and their influence on the East Australian longshore sand transport system under a changing climate, J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, 121, 7.

Harley, M.D. et al. (2017), Extreme coastal erosion enhanced by anomalous extratropical storm wave direction, Sci. Rep., 7, 6033.

Lucas et al. (2014), The expanding tropics: a critical assessment of the observational and modeling studies, Wiley Interdiscip Rev, 5, 1.

Mortlock, T.R. et. al. (2017), The June 2016 Australian East Coast Low: Importance of Wave Direction for Coastal Erosion Assessment, Water, 9(2), 121.

Position Vacant: Senior Research Consultant

·        St Leonards, Sydney
·        Challenging and interesting projects
·        Diverse and high performing team

Risk Frontiers is a leading independent research and development company, focused on providing practical and pragmatic solutions to interesting and challenging risk and resilience problems. Risk Frontiers works will global insurance companies, infrastructure corporations and the government and non-government sectors to deliver risk modelling, risk management, resilience and social research solutions. Our research expertise covers natural hazards, climate change, cyber security, infrastructure vulnerability and the human dimensions of risk.

An exciting opportunity is available for an innovative, adaptable and strategic thinker, with excellent research and analytical skills to join our risk and resilience team as we continue to grow and enter new markets. You will be responsible for engaging with Risk Frontiers’ clients to undertake a diversity of research, evaluation and consulting projects focused in areas of social research and resilience. You will lead the completion of high quality facilitation, advice, plans and reports to ultimately improve the management of risk and the resilience of organisations and communities.

About you

  • Demonstrated thought leader with highly developed research, analytical and stakeholder engagement skills
  • Excellent presentation and facilitation skills, including written and verbal communication skills
  • Demonstrated strategic and innovative thinking with the ability to develop unique solutions to address complex problems
  • Demonstrated time management skills with the ability to manage multiple projects and priorities
  • Previous professional services experience is desirable
  • A post graduate research degree or equivalent industry experience is desirable

Located at St Leonards with a short walk to public transport, we offer flexible working options, professional development and a great team working environment to foster your potential.

To apply please forward a covering letter and resume outlining your suitability. All applicants are encouraged to obtain an information package by contacting Carol Robertson at

We want to know about your experience.

Did you stay with your home or business, or evacuate during the recent floods?

We are inviting residents and business owners in the Richmond, Brunswick and Tweed river catchments to participate in an online survey. We are interested in your experiences of evacuating and/or staying with your property during the floods following tropical cyclone Debbie on March 31st.

We recognise that many families have experienced significant losses as a result of the flooding and we sincerely apologise for any distress completing this survey may cause. If you require support, you can access free counselling and support through Lifeline (ph: 13 11 14) or the Flood Support Line (available Mon-Fri, 8am-6pm, ph: 1300 137 934).

This survey is being conducted by Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University in conjunction with the NSW State Emergency Service (SES) and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre (BNHCRC). By telling us about your experience you will be making an important contribution to improving community safety during extreme flooding events. The results of this survey will help improve community engagement and emergency management policy, and will be available publicly.

Participation in this survey is voluntary. All information will remain confidential. This project has been approved by the Macquarie University Human Research Ethics Committee. The survey should take 20 minutes to complete. The survey closes on Monday 31 July.

If you have any questions or concerns about this survey, please contact Dr. Katharine Haynes on

Thank you for your time and help,

Katharine Haynes
Dr Katharine Haynes | Senior Research Fellow
Department of Geography and Planning
Macquarie University | Sydney 2109 Australia

Risk Frontiers spins out of Macquarie University

This article by Professor John McAneney — CEO Risk Frontiers and Anna Game-Lopata appeared in the ANZIIF Writer on18 Jul 2017.

“For 23 years, Risk Frontiers has been at the cutting edge of catastrophe loss modelling, applying advances in technology and science to better assess the threats posed by some of the country’s most costly natural hazard events: cyclones, floods, bushfires, earthquakes and convective storms.

In addition to its suite of home-grown loss models, Risk Frontiers has also been at the forefront of efforts to understand the social dimensions of these risks in ways to help make communities more resilient. These risk themes will continue to motivate the organisation’s new R&D agenda.”

Read more

Exploring the circumstances surrounding flood fatalities in Australia – 1900-2015 and the implications for policy and practice

This paper  by the Risk Frontiers team has just been published in the journal Environmental Science and Policy. The paper documents an analysis of the circumstances surrounding fatalities due to flooding in Australia between 1900 and 2015. This longitudinal investigation is important to understand changing trends in social vulnerability and to inform efficient and strategic risk reduction strategies. The basis of this analysis was PerilAUS, Risk Frontiers’ database of historical natural hazard impacts in Australia. Through funding provided by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC the data was augmented and verified using coronial inquest records which provide detailed data concerning the circumstances of each fatality. Overall there have been 1859 fatalities identified, with distinct trends in relation to gender, age, activity and reason behind the activity. d/article/S1462901117301818

The country’s flood insurance program is sinking. Rescuing it won’t be easy.

Washington Post July 16, 2017.

This article from The Washington Post on June 16 by Brady Denis nicely highlights the complex political issues facing attempts to reform the US National Flood Insurance Program.
As is discussed in McAneney et al. (2017) ( many government-sponsored insurance schemes end up subsidising homeowners to live in vulnerable locations.

PEQUANNOCK, N.J. — Time after time, as the river has risen and the water has crept up Roosevelt Street, Leni-anne Shuchter has fled the white clapboard home she bought more than four decades ago.

There was the night in 1984 when rescuers plucked her from a neighbour’s roof as floodwaters engulfed her house. And the months in 2011 when she and her husband, John Van Seters, lived in a hotel after torrential rains from Hurricane Irene forced them to gut walls and floors and replace nearly everything they owned.

In between, other storms have forced her to file claim after claim with the troubled National Flood Insurance Program so she could rebuild. Yet the small home remains as vulnerable as ever, a reality reflected by its falling value in recent years.

“If I had a choice, I would sell,” said the 65-year-old Shuchter, who dreams of retiring to Arizona or Nevada. “I don’t need to deal with this anymore. [But] the reality of selling is nil.”

The couple’s house is what the federal government defines as a “severe repetitive loss property” — one of many that have been covered over and over again by taxpayers, the cumulative payouts often far exceeding what the structures are worth. Nationwide, 11,000 such properties dot coastal zones or other low-lying areas, and their numbers continue to grow, in part because of the effects of climate change and ongoing development.

One house outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims. A $90,000 property near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis has flooded 34 times, racking up claims of more than $608,000. And an oft-flooded Houston home has received more than $1 million in payouts — nearly 15 times its assessed value of $72,400. The data is collected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees the insurance program.

The extreme cases are only a fraction of the NFIP’s 5 million active policies, but they historically have accounted for about 30 percent of its claims. And while they’re a financial albatross for taxpayers, the claims are hardly the program’s only challenge.

The NFIP, which must be reauthorized by the end of September, is nearly $25 billion in the red — a debt that administrator Roy Wright says he sees no way to pay back.

“Only Congress can deal with that past loss,” Wright said last week . “What we’re focused on today is ensuring that going forward, we’re putting ourselves on a sound financial footing.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are scrambling to overhaul the half-century-old program. Allowing it to lapse Sept. 30 would risk disrupting the buying and selling of homes in flood-prone areas across the country.

The NFIP has long enjoyed bipartisan support, if for one simple reason. “Where it rains, it can flood, so no one in the country is insulated,” said Laura Lightbody, who directs an initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts aimed at helping communities better prepare for flood risks. “It touches all 50 states.”

But not equally. Data shows that some of the worst flooding, and often the most frequent, has occurred along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. Houses along the Mississippi River have repeatedly been deluged. And the Atlantic coast from Miami to Boston faces perpetual — and escalating — threats. Although there are certainly beachfront mansions affected, many homes belong to working-class Americans.

Critics have long maintained that although the NFIP was intended to encourage smarter development, its current design too often bails out people in flood-prone areas. In short, it incentivizes staying put, whatever the cost, rather than moving to higher ground. Plus it has had only limited success in discouraging development in questionable areas.

Figuring out how to tackle the program’s problems remains complicated and politically fraught. Lawmakers must decide whether to raise rates — and by how much — on the roughly one in five homeowners who pay below-market premiums mandated by Congress. Making the homeowners pay rates that reflect their true flood risk could shore up the program’s finances; it also could mean sharp premium hikes and a public backlash over affordability.

The same dilemma is part of the reason Congress retreated from its last major effort to fix things five years ago, when a sudden rise in rates caused an outcry in some communities.

“No congressman ever got unelected by providing cheap flood insurance,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an expert on the program.

Some on Capitol Hill are pushing for more private firms to enter the flood insurance market — an idea Wright, the administrator, said he supports — although critics worry that companies could cherry-pick the least troubled properties, leaving the government on the hook for the other addresses.

No matter who the underwriter is, Congress must deal with the thorny question of how best to fund the continued updating of detailed U.S. flood maps. Many are woefully outdated and do not reflect changed flood risks — not to mention future risks from factors such as rising seas. The Trump administration has actually proposed cutting $190 million annually from the mapping work.

Flooding remains the most common and most costly form of natural disaster in the United States, and insurance to protect against it has become increasingly necessary in certain places. A report this month from the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests an ominous future. Within the next two decades, it forecasts that nearly 170 U.S. coastal communities will face chronic inundation, defined as flooding at least 26 times a year. That’s almost twice as many at-risk locations as today.

Congress created the flood insurance program in 1968 because the costs of disaster assistance were escalating and private insurers had largely abandoned the market. The program not only requires people purchasing homes in floodplains to take out insurance as a condition of getting a mortgage, but it also provides grants to help mitigate vulnerable properties, either by elevating them or in some cases buying out homeowners and tearing their structures down.

But the latter isn’t happening often enough, according to the NRDC’s Moore.

“It’s helping people stay in places that we know are unwise to stay in,” he said. “The days of flood-rebuild-repeat need to come to an end. We need to do things differently to get out of that cycle.”

The financial woes began when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, followed by hurricanes Rita and Wilma. The program paid eight times as many claims that year as in any previous year — and ended up borrowing $17.5 billion from the U.S. treasury.

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 resulted in 144,000 more claims and another $6.25 billion in debt, as well as allegations that thousands of homeowners were wrongfully denied payouts by companies administering flood insurance on FEMA’s behalf.

Even in 2016, when there was no singularly catastrophic event, floods in Louisiana, Texas and other states resulted in the third-largest year of payouts in the program’s history.

In a report this spring, the Government Accountability Office detailed the NFIP’s fundamental dilemma, saying it “has experienced significant challenges because FEMA is tasked with pursuing competing programmatic goals — keeping flood insurance affordable while keeping the program fiscally solvent.”

For all its troubles, lawmakers know that the program affects the lives of millions of Americans and that failing to reauthorize it this fall could cause major upheaval for homeowners and the real estate market.

“Flood disasters today would be truly grim but for NFIP,” said Nicholas Pinter, a geology professor at the University of California at Davis and an expert in flood risks. He added, “It definitely has problems. . . . It needs improving. But it’s a hell of a lot better than it was when there was nothing.”

A House committee last month passed legislation to overhaul and reauthorize the program. If adopted, it would compel communities with persistent flooding problems to develop plans to reduce them and would require more transparency about a property’s flood history.

“The American taxpayer [has] been called upon in the past to bail out a program that is currently drowning,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), said this spring as lawmakers weighed varying proposals. And although homeowners need to be protected from “sticker shock . . . the program must be made sustainable.”

The Senate also is trying to strengthen the NFIP, with measures proposed to better fund flood mitigation projects, promote the use of high-resolution mapping technology and encourage private insurers to enter the market.

Back on Roosevelt Street in Pequannock, a stone’s throw from the Pompton River, Shuchter and her husband have all but relinquished their dream of retiring and moving, at least for now.

With help from local officials, the couple are in the process of securing a FEMA grant that would raise their 960-square-foot house eight to 10 feet off the ground. The project could begin late this year and cost an estimated $196,000 — $10,000 more than their property’s assessed value.

The work will mean up to six more months living in a hotel. They will return to a home hovering high above its previous site, and stairs Shuchter worries will grow only more daunting as they age.

In the meantime, Shuchter keeps important papers — birth certificates, wills, past flood records — in a waterproof box in the bedroom. She has made digital copies of family pictures. She also has a list of what to quickly grab when the next evacuation call comes, everything from medications to laptops.

She also has bookmarked a National Weather Service website that monitors the flood gauge on the river. On nights when rain is pounding or a storm is swirling, she often stays up late, checking the site to make sure the water hasn’t risen to perilous levels. But experience tells her it’s only a matter of time.

“I do believe it’s when,” she said. “Not if.”

Risk Frontiers becomes an independent R&D company

John McAneney making history

Risk Frontiers, Australia’s longest running natural hazards research centre, is spinning out from Macquarie University after a successful partnership of 23 years.

The ‘new’ Risk Frontiers will continue to provide the rigorous, science-based advice that clients have come to expect. Strong relationships forged with key academics at Macquarie University will be maintained with the creation of a Risk Frontiers Research Fellowship Fund for joint collaborative research in natural hazards, as well as new endeavours in cyber security.

At the time of the 2011 Brisbane floods, few insurance companies offered cover for damage arising from riverine flood: now, because of Risk Frontiers’ involvement in the development of the National Flood Information Database for the Insurance Council of Australia, some 93% of property owners are covered for this risk. The ICA’s General Manager (Risk) Karl Sullivan sees this ‘sea change’ as a success, not only for the insurance sector, but “in making communities more resilient in the face of a key natural peril threat.” Amongst its many contributions to the insurance sector, Karl complements Risk Frontiers on its “courageous and insightful” work in respect to understanding the societal drivers of the rising economic costs of natural disasters, the relative contribution of climate change toward this increasing cost, and the key role played by poor landuse-planning decisions. This body of research laid the foundations for the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Natural Disaster Funding arrangements.

The company’s CEO, Professor John McAneney, pledges that Risk Frontiers will continue to deliver thought leadership and high-level solutions and services for key industry, government and emergency management clients. In its new guise, there will be an even greater focus on creating innovative commercial solutions to natural peril and other extreme risks.

According to the Macquarie University’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Sakkie Pretorius, “Risk Frontiers’ cutting-edge catastrophic risk modelling has had a material impact on the way natural disaster risks are priced and managed in this country. It serves as a wonderful example of genuine engagement by academia with the private and government sectors resulting in tangible science-led outcomes.”

Christopher Lee, CEO of Climate-KIC Australia describes Risk Frontiers as “the leading supplier of risk advice, models and data to government, insurance and emergency management. They bring wide-ranging expertise to a suite of complex problems and are able to provide pragmatic solutions that meet multiple stakeholder needs” and he looks forward to “continuing to work with them in this new chapter.”

This sentiment is echoed by Dr Richard Thorton, CEO, Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC. “I congratulate Risk Frontiers on its decision to spin out from Macquarie University and look forward to ongoing research relationships with the new Risk Frontiers.”

For more information please contact  or +61 2 9850 9683 and please visit our website at

The Grenfell Tower fire of June 14 and the role of Composite Sandwich Panel Cladding

John McAneney

Sadly the risks identified in our Briefing Note 315 (April 2016), and which you can again read below, have been realised in London in the June 14 Grenfell Tower fire with the loss of at least 80 lives. The building had smoke detectors but no automatic sprinklers and only a single central staircase for access and evacuation.

Immediately after the fire it was clear that the cladding material had amplified the fire risk. It’s claimed that in a recent refurbishment of the building, a bid seeking to employ higher quality (less combustible) cladding was rejected on cost considerations.

Fire services had earlier reinforced the message to residents that in the case of a fire in someone else’s apartment they were to stay in their home until told otherwise. This advice was on the presumption that a fire could be contained to a single apartment, which was clearly not the case as the cladding led to a fire engulfing the entire building.

The government has taken immediate steps to conduct an audit of hi-rise (>18 m) social housing across the country to see just how widespread the problem is and to ensure that any other similar risks be identified and acted upon. It has also set up an expert panel to advise on other urgent steps to improve fire safety.

Housing associations, local authorities and private landlords are currently engaged in a checking and testing process for Aluminium Composite Material (ACM) cladding at the Building Research Establishment. The Department for Communities and Local Government has extended this checking and testing approach to residential tower blocks owned by private landlords and to tall buildings in the public sector, including hospitals and schools.

The current screening programme only tests the filler. We do not yet know the number of buildings involved, but by the end of Thursday June 29, none of the cladding materials tested satisfied the limited combustibility required by the building regulation guidance.

Building standard requirements set out a requirement that external walls on all buildings do not allow fire spread. Each individual element of the wall — insulation, filler material, etc. — must be of limited combustibility, and each component must meet set standards for this. The second requirement is that the combined elements of a wall, when tested as a whole system, have sufficient fire spread resistance to satisfy the set standard. This was clearly not the case for the Grenfell Tower, or any of the other buildings described in the Briefing note below.

The challenge moving forward is two-fold:

  1. Ensuring that the use of combustible cladding is limited on new buildings, and1. Ensuring that the use of combustible cladding is limited on new buildings, and
  2. Addressing the significant risk in the current building stock arising from the use of combustible cladding.

Removing cladding from high-rise buildings will present its own set of risks and costs and may not be the best strategy. Authorities and building owners need to accept that a significant risk exists and then to analyse this to aid decision-making. What is needed is an overall assessment of risk to those living in such buildings. This is not just a fire engineering problem, but a risk problem, and one that also poses a significant issue for the insurance industry.

This is a challenge for many countries, not just the UK and Australia.

More information on the UK Government’s building safety program can be found at: ety_checks_explanatory_note_170630.pdf

Role of Composite Sandwich Panel Cladding in Recent Hi-Rise Building Fires

John McAneney

The Lacrosse building fire in Docklands Melbourne

A number of recent fires around the world in which Aluminium Composite Panels (ACP) are implicated is worrying. It is not a new problem having been an issue for UK companies in the late 1990s and early 200os, but over the last 12 months or so we have seen several very high profile fires. Insurers of commercial buildings will be looking closely at their policy wordings.

Last May saw the fire in Docklands, Melbourne, of the 23-story Lacrosse building. Thought to have begun from an un-extinguished cigarette, the fire started on the 8th floor and spread rapidly up the outside of the building to the 21st story.

A report by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) said the burn pattern of the blaze was unusual and the “rapid vertical fire spread up the building appeared to be directly associated with the external facade of the building, rather than – – – the internal parts or extensive fuel loads stored on many of the balconies.”

The cladding comprises an aluminum sandwich with expanded polystyrene or polyethylene as the filler and is widely employed because of its attractiveness and insulating properties. More expensive products use mineral-based insulation, which is much less combustible. One can only tell the difference between these products by taking a core sample  — or perhaps applying a flame to it!

Over the last two decades, buildings are required by law to be more energy efficient, which has resulted in the increased use of thermal insulation materials.  This has had the unintended consequence (side-affect) of increasing the fire risk in buildings.

The City of Melbourne has given the 400 owners of apartments in the Lacrosse residential building in Docklands a year to replace the building’s non-compliant cladding with panels that meet Australian fire-safety standards.

During the holiday period leading up to Chinese New Year in 2009, a 34-story building, containing a 241-room hotel and a cultural centre, and part of China Central Television’s new headquarters, suffered a similar fate to the Lacrosse building in Melbourne. Fire fighters, their equipment reaching up only a dozen or so floors, could do little to contain the blaze, a spectacular wall of flames reflected in the glass skin of the adjacent CCTV tower, which was untouched by the fire.

Last February another fire, thought to have been started by a barbecue on a balcony on the 51st floor, led to the evacuation of a 79-story residential apartment building in Dubai’s Marina District. The building, ironically called The Torch, had been in 2011 the world’s tallest residential building. The original cost of the contract for the cladding was $20 million; the cost to replace it is unknown.

At around 21:30 hrs on New Year’s Eve 2015, a fire broke out on the 20th floor of the 63 storey Address Downtown Hotel. The hotel has 196 rooms and 626 apartments.

Then on New Year’s Eve, 2015, another Dubai high-rise (63 storeys) building, The Address Downtown hotel, located close to the world’s highest artificial structure the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, suffered a cladding fire so spectacular that it was said to eclipse the fireworks.

To the best of our knowledge in none of these fires has there been any casualties. All appear to share a common use of the ACP as external cladding. So what’s going on?

Well aside from the intrinsic combustibility of the polystyrene or polyethylene filler in the APC it seems likely that the vertical arrangement of this cladding means that the heating caused by the fire cures the material above and in this way accelerates the fire’s vertical propagation. The fire runs up the external wall like a wick.

The speed at which the fires have spread vertically may be responsible for the lack of casualties seen to date. However, sooner or later the radiant heat flux from the external fire will lead to internal combustions that can’t be controlled.

The MFB report after the Lacrosse building argued that the outcome may have been worse if the building’s sprinkler system had not performed beyond its design capacity. It is not hard to imagine a situation with enough fires burning simultaneously in adjacent apartments that a loss of water pressure will mean that sprinklers will not work effectively. Thus there is the potential for even more serious fires and loss of life.

Dubai Civil Defence has recently ordered two new fire trucks with extra-powerful pumps that can deal with fires in buildings as high as 100 floors. At present, the ladders of the fire trucks used by the Civil Defence can only reach up to 18 floors.

And so how widespread is the problem in Australia?  At this point we do not know, but a recent audit of 170 Melbourne CBD tower buildings by the Victorian Building Authority is reported to have found that 51% employed similar non-compliant ACP materials.  This situation is likely similar in other major cities around the country.