Atlantic Canadians can expect to see more and increasingly intense hurricanes, as sea surface temperatures continue to warm up as a result of climate change.
“Warmer sea surface temperatures fuel stronger hurricanes,” Swiss Re Canada CEO Monica Ningen observed during the 36th annual Swiss Re Canadian Insurance Update breakfast, held virtually on Tuesday. “So the average intensity of a North Atlantic hurricane is intensifying, and major hurricanes are increasing as the sea surface temperature increases.
“In a warmer world that we’re living in, we should expect more intense hurricanes, greenhouse gas emissions, and sea surface temperatures are likely to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. So we are unlikely to return to the lower historical hurricane levels that we’ve seen.”
According to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, on average, 10.1 named storms occur each season, with an average of 5.9 becoming hurricanes and 2.5 becoming major hurricanes (Category 3 or greater). The most active season on record was 2020, during which 30 named tropical cyclones formed.
Hurricanes travelling north along the U.S. eastern seaboard typically dissipate into tropical storms by the time they reach the Maritimes. (That is to say, the wind speeds change from an average of 119-153 km/h for a Category 1 hurricane to more than 63 km/h for a tropical storm.)
But climate change will be changing those conditions and Canadian insurers’ expectations, Ningen said.
“With the warmer increase in sea surface temperatures, these storms will be able to travel further north,” she said. “And we should expect to see greater impact in Canada in the future.”
Increased rainfall, a byproduct of more intense hurricanes and tropical storms, will also have an impact, as noted by Don Forgeron, president and CEO of the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
He raised the example of a dyke system built in the 1600s to protect the Chignecto Isthmus, located along the border between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Trans-Canada Highway and CN Rail line carry approximately $35 billion per year in goods and services through the isthmus, according to the province of New Brunswick.
Situated slightly above sea level, the Chignecto Isthmus is the only road and rail connection between the two provinces. The 35-km network of earthen dykes currently protects communities, infrastructure, private lands and natural resources from rising sea levels.
Forgeron noted how, during a recent storm, “we came within less than 12 inches of the highway and rail system being underwater because these dykes are no longer able to sustain the sea level heights that we’re now experiencing. The government’s committed $100 million to rebuild these.”
But damage due to bank erosion and coastal storm surge are not covered by insurance, Forgeron noted.
“Now, I’m not suggesting that we rush out there and create new products [for erosion and storm surge], as we’re just talking about [the need for] sustainable products,” he said. “But again, I come back to the question of relevancy [of insurance], in that this is a key source of damage during these hurricanes and tropical storms. It’s an area where we don’t currently play, and so I think it’s a vulnerability…for us as an industry.”
That speaks for the need to have a public-private partnership to develop a national program for flood, the conference speakers noted. Insurers, for example, are more likely to be able to provide insurance for risks in high-risk areas where they know their caps to exposure will be borne by governments.