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Research suggests it doesn’t take a storm to create a surge in sea levels


Research into the “unprecedented” and “very unusual” significant surge in sea levels that occurred on the East Coast of the U.S. during 2009 and 2010, claims to have found the cause of the storm surge-like phenomena.

Typically, when a hurricane or severe winter storm strikes the resulting impact on ocean levels can create intense, devastating flooding in areas close to and far from the eye of the storm, known as a storm surge.

So when sea levels on the New York coast alone spiked 128mm during 2009-2010, without the presence of any known storm or hurricane, the cause was initially unknown.

“Statistical analysis indicates that this is a 1-in-850 year event,” advised Prof Jianjun Yin of the University of Arizona to the BBC.

Yin is a scientist who along with others from the university and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in New Jersey, studied tidal levels along the east U.S. and Canadian coast.

They found that a change in ocean currents and persistent winds coupled with the ongoing impacts of climate change is what caused the surge and flooding, and that this type of event is likely to happen more often in the future.

“The sea level has since dropped after that spike, but it is still much higher than it was when the spike began in 2009,” confirmed Yin, adding; “Global warming definitely contributed to this event.”

Prof Rowan Sutton, climate scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, University of Reading, warned that catastrophe and climate models point to the increasing likelihood of events like this occurring more frequently; “There is strong evidence that the likelihood of such events has been increased by climate change, and that we should expect more such events in the future.”

Despite the predictions and forecasts of researchers and scientists it’s still too early to tell whether this type of surge as a stand-alone peril becomes frequent enough to warrant the protection offered by risk financing tools.

It wasn’t until 2013 and First Mutual Transportation Assurance Co.’s MetroCat Re Ltd. (Series 2013-1) deal that stand-alone storm surge protection was offered in a catastrophe bond. The MetroCat Re cat bond requires a named storm event to occur, with any triggering storm surge having to occur during that event period.

Perhaps one day we may see cat bonds, or other risk transfer tools, structured in order to protect against rising sea levels from storm surge events that are not related to hurricanes or named storms, especially if these events do become more common.

The greater the amount of comprehensive research that becomes available for insurers, reinsurers and ILS players should hopefully coincide with increased innovation and the launch of new, surge-related risk transfer products.

The more the insurance and reinsurance industry understands the causes and impacts of a coastal surge event , be it storm induced or not, the better prepared and equipped societies and economies will be, in regions of the globe where rising sea levels are most devastating.

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