Tomorrow is June 1, the official start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, which is predicted by NOAA to be near normal. It comes almost as an afterthought this year because already we have had two named storms. In mid-May Tropical Storm Alberto appeared and quickly disappeared. It was followed shortly after by Tropical Storm Beryl, which made landfall at Jacksonville, Florida with record winds for a May storm. Some undoubtedly have the view that the season's early arrival is further evidence of climate change. That conclusion may be premature. According to a report by the Miami Herald, single named storms in the pre-season are not that unusual, but to have two, that has happened only thrice in the 150 years of official recordkeeping. The science too does not support increased frequency of tropical storms as a result of climate change. In a 2010 article, Tropical cyclones and climate change, Dr. Thomas Knutson with many others set forth what they perceived as the state of the science:
Frequency. It is likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged owing to greenhouse warming. .... Current models project changes ranging from −6 to −34% globally, and up to ±50% or more in individual basins by the late twenty-first century.
Intensity. Some increase in the mean maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones is likely (+2 to +11% globally) with projected twenty-first-century warming, although increases may not occur in all tropical regions. The frequency of the most intense (rare/high-impact) storms will more likely than not increase by a substantially larger percentage in some basins.
Rainfall. Rainfall rates are likely to increase. The projected magnitude is on the order of +20% within 100 km of the tropical cyclone centre.
This may not be nearly as dire as some have suggested, but we point out that ignoring a substantial increase in the frequency of storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Andrew is done at some peril. People in harm's way are paying attention and using this kind of analysis to make decisions on how to insure the billions of dollars of at-risk property in Florida. We have written before of the "life on the edge" of Florida's insurer of last resort, Citizens' Property Insurance Corporation. In trying to get off the edge and get closer to financial stability, Citizens this spring made the insurance record books when it became the ceding insurer on the largest reinsurance catastrophe bond1 ever placed: $750 million.
So where does climate change fit in? The CAT bond's offering document doesn't mention climate change at all. But one should not be fooled. The modeler for the bond is AIR Worldwide. AIR is all over climate change risks. In fact, just this March AIR published a literature review regarding extratropical cyclones (aka North Atlantic winter storms).
• The frequency of ETCs may diminish with increasing global temperatures
• The intensity of the more extreme ETCs may rise
• ETC tracks are expected to shift poleward in both hemispheres
One can see parallels with the conclusions reached by Dr. Knutson et al. regarding tropical cyclones. Accordingly, we think it would be naive to conclude that AIR did not model for climate change. We also expect that the negotiators for Citizens wanted to insure that climate change risk was applied. As did the investors. So climate change matters to the people with real skin in the game - like three-quarters of a billion dollars. As such, one can bet all involved are paying close attention to the official opening of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, and also to what occurs before and what occurs after.
1This is not the financial instruments blog but for those who want a quick explanation try this from BusinessWeek: "An insurance company issues bonds to financial investors, such as hedge and pension funds, that are willing to place a bet on the probability of a disaster occurring at a particular location and during a specific time frame. During the life of the bond, the insurer pays investors a coupon interest rate. If nothing happens, the insurer returns the money when the bond matures. If the fates are cruel, cat bond investors kiss off all or part of the principal." What investors especially like is that there is no correlation between cat bond risk and stock market or corporate bond risk.