Extreme weather tops global risks

Andrew Gissing

This week the World Economic Forum again published its Global Risk Report. The report is based on a survey that accesses insights across the Forum’s vast network of business, government and community leaders.

For the third year running, extreme weather was listed as the top global risk in likelihood of occurrence and within the top 5 in impact. Overall, environmental risks dominated the assessment with failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation and natural disasters also recorded amongst the top risks. These risks were rated above others that commonly occupy the minds of policy makers and the media such as asset bubbles, terrorist attacks, energy price shocks, financial crises and many more. (See Figure 1)

The report expresses rising concerns regarding climate inaction stating that: “of all risks, it is in relation to the environment that the world is most clearly sleepwalking into catastrophe”. The report further reiterates recent messages from the IPCC about the extent of the global struggle to restrict warming and the dire warning by the recent United States National Climate Assessment that without significant reductions in emissions, average temperatures could rise by five degrees Celsius by 2100.

It is claimed that the disruption to the production and delivery of goods and services due to environmental disasters has risen by 29% since 2012, placing additional strain on the resilience of organisations and their customers.

The growing threat of sea level rise and the rising population of coastal megacities globally was featured. Some 800 million people already live in cities vulnerable to sea level rise up to 0.5 metres. According to the World Bank, 70% of the largest cities in Europe are susceptible to sea level rise. The phenomena pose significant risks to properties and infrastructure, though the economic risk globally is concentrated in low-lying coastal areas with significant asset values. The report cites research that $14.1 Billion was lost from home values in parts of the US east coast due to sea level rise between 2005 and 2017.

Cyber risk was also rated highly with both massive data fraud and theft, and cyber-attacks being among the top five risks in likelihood of occurrence. Interestingly, respondents expected that cyber risks would increase in 2019. The associated vulnerabilities of essential infrastructure were a concern given recent examples of hackers gaining access to the control rooms of some utility companies in the United States.

For solutions, the report supports the need for action to rapidly decarbonize agriculture, energy, transport and industry to limit the rise of global temperatures and to establish plans for adaptation. The challenge of promoting proactive adaptation investment is, however, highlighted by citing statistics showing that spending on flood recovery is nine times greater than investment in flood mitigation.

Interestingly the report offers advice on conceptualising the unimaginable through promoting a technique of imagining failure and then thinking why such a failure may have occurred. Doing so is known as “prospective hindsight” and according to psychologists enables us to anticipate a broader and more vivid set of problems.

Risk Frontiers will continue to support our clients in addressing these top risks in 2019 through the continued licensing and development of our suite of natural hazard catastrophe loss models for Australia and New Zealand. Our partnership with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes will allow us to give our clients unique insights into how climate change may affect their business. Furthermore, we will continue our work on building a cyber loss model through the Optus Macquarie University Cyber Security Hub and in assisting Government clients to build safer and more resilient communities in partnership with organisations including the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre.

For more on the report visit: www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2019.pdf

Figure 1: Global Risk Landscape 2019 (The Global Risk Report 2019, pp 5)


Analysis of fatalities attributed to Hurricane Florence in the US.

Jonathan van Leeuwen

Hurricane Florence impacted the US East Coast in September 2018 resulting in dangerous surf conditions, strong winds, storm surge and heavy rain producing significant flooding. The system made landfall over North Carolina as a Category 1 hurricane. While 1.7 million people received evacuation orders (The Independent, 2018), estimates of evacuees in shelters were around 30 thousand people (VOA, 2018), and total flood loss for residential and commercial properties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia were estimated to be between $19 billion and $28.5 billion. Around 85 percent of residential loss is estimated to be uninsured (CoreLogic, 2018).
This article aims to identify key circumstances and demographic factors common in those who lost their lives as a result of Hurricane Florence.

We define a hurricane death as one which would not have occurred if the hurricane had not impacted, i.e. any death directly or indirectly caused by that hurricane. This includes deaths from the potential mechanisms of rain (e.g., filling a depression into which an individual may fall and drown) and its associated flooding (riverine, flash), storm surge, strong winds and high seas. It also includes deaths of persons carrying out activities specifically associated with the hurricane – e.g., taking measurements, preparing people, goods or buildings to evacuate or endure the event, and cleaning up after the event (e.g., an accident whilst running a generator that was required because strong winds from the hurricane have taken out the electricity supplies). Care needs to be taken with timing – for example, how long after a hurricane has passed should one attribute flood deaths to that hurricane? This will vary from one event to another and is best defined by the weather authorities as (e.g., for Australia) in the case of a tropical cyclone decaying to a tropical low which can produce rain long after the initial impact of the tropical cyclone.

By searching through articles from numerous media outlets, we have identified 53 hurricane deaths. Where possible, records were verified against multiple news sources. We also classified each record by the state and county in which the death occurred, 10 year age bracket, and by category of cause of death (e.g., deaths occurred while in a vehicle, deaths caused by falling debris). The results are also compared with previous research on fatalities associated with Australian Tropical Cyclones by Coates, et al. (2017).

Results and analysis

The most common circumstances that caused fatalities were related to vehicles (n=26, 49%) and flooding (n=23, 43%). Only one vehicle incident causing multiple deaths was identified. Fourteen (26%) fatalities resulted from vehicles being washed off roads and nine (17%) from vehicles colliding with obstacles due to water on the road causing aquaplaning or heavy rain causing low visibility. Most incidents involved only private vehicles, but two people died when a prison transport van was driven into floodwater and one person died driving a semi-trailer truck which aquaplaned, left the road and struck an undescribed obstacle. Only two flooding related fatalities were not also related to vehicles: a child playing in water which was deeper than normal due to preparatory release from a dam and a man who refused mandatory evacuation and was subsequently trapped in a caravan trailer.

Four people died as a result of a tree falling on their residence or vehicle during the hurricane, while other debris related circumstances included vehicle striking fallen tree, tree falling during clean-up operations and a woman who died after suffering a heart attack as emergency services could not get to her due to debris on roads. Two people died from carbon monoxide poisoning while running a generator indoors due to power outages, while other circumstances relating to death included loss of power for an oxygen concentrator and electrocution while attempting to connect extension cords to a generator in heavy rain. Two people died in a house fire which was caused by candles used after a loss of power. Two people fell from ladders and another person suffered unspecified injuries while cleaning debris from the storm or making repairs. Three people died in circumstances relating to evacuation, one of whom fell while packing for evacuation, one on a moped while evacuating and one who fell and struck his head in a hotel to which he had evacuated.

Victims were most commonly 70 years old and above. No deaths were recorded for people between 10 and 19 years old, but there were a few fatalities under 10 years old. The deaths of those under 10 years old were caused primarily by trees falling on homes, and being in cars that were driven into floodwater by an accompanying adult. Figure 1 shows fatalities in 10-year age categories as a percentage of all fatalities where age was reported.

Figure 1: % of fatalities by 10-year age category

Males represented 74% of the deaths where the gender of the deceased was specified; however, a higher proportion of females died in circumstances relating to vehicles (58%) compared to males at 35%. More males died in circumstances relating to preparing for, activities during, and clean-up after the event such as checking on possessions, setting up generators, swimming in dangerous conditions or clearing debris.

Discussion and conclusion

The consequences of Hurricane Florence provide a clear reminder of the dangers associated with driving vehicles during and after severe weather, and the importance of avoiding driving through floodwater. Severe weather is shown to increase risks associated with evacuating by vehicle.

Figures 2 and 3 compare key demographics between fatalities from Hurricane Florence and a historical analysis of fatalities due to tropical cyclones in Australia from 1970 to 2015 by Coates, et al. (2017). Our analysis of deaths resulting from Hurricane Florence demonstrates a consistent gender distribution with Australian historical data. This supports the conclusion that males are more likely to be in hazardous situations or undertake risky behaviours than females in these types of events. However, the two data sets differ markedly in age demographics, with much younger victims in Australia than Hurricane Florence.

Figure 2: Comparison of Hurricane Florence fatalities by age with historical Australia cyclone fatalities (Coates, 2018)
Figure 3: Comparison of Hurricane Florence fatalities by gender with historical Australia cyclone fatalities (Coates, 2018)


The Independent, 2018. Hurricane Florence: Residents ignore evacuation orders in North Carolina ‘hoping God protects us’ as storm hits. The Independent. [Online] Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hurricane-florence-nc-residents-evacuation-god-north-carolina-evacuate-storm-a8536611.html [Accessed 3 December 2018]

VOA, 2018. What’s Happening: Florence by the Numbers. VOA News. [Online] Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/whats-happening-florence-by-the-numbers/4573595.html [Accessed 3 December 2018]

CoreLogic, 2018. The Aftermath of Hurricane Florence is Estimated to Have Caused Between $20 Billion and $30 Billion in Flood and Wind Losses, CoreLogic Analysis Shows. CoreLogic. [Online] Available at: https://www.corelogic.com/news/the-aftermath-of-hurricane-florence-is-estimated-to-have-caused-between-20-billion-and-30-billion-in-flood-and-wind-losses-cor.aspx [Accessed 4th December 2018]

Coates, L., Haynes, K., Radford, D., D’Arcy, R., Smith, C., van den Honert, R., Gissing, A. 2018. An analysis of human fatalities from cyclones, earthquakes and severe storms in Australia. Report for the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre.