Euronews feature: Could severe storms like Irma one day thrash Europe?

(Euronews) More than one million residents in Florida are reportedly still without power, and millions more remain homeless after Hurricane Irma barrelled through the United States and Caribbean islands last week.

The category five cyclone, the most powerful kind, stretched over 800 miles-wide with wind speeds reaching 185mph at its peak, leaving a trail of destruction potentially worth $83 billion (€74 billion).
Over 80 deaths have been linked to the storm, which is thought to be the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history.

In Europe however, hurricanes are mercifully rare since they typically form over warm tropical oceans, but climate experts say that much larger storms will strike the region as carbon emissions heat the world’s atmosphere. Professor Uwe Ulbrich believes extratropical cyclones which blanket entire European countries will become more frequent and destructive within the next few decades.

“That is what the climate models tell us,” says Ulbrich, who heads the Institute of Meteorology at Freie Universität Berlin. “Their wind speeds will be less than what you see with hurricanes in the Atlantic, but they would also bring storm surges and intense flooding.”

Storm surges flood land by pushing water onshore via strong winds. Climate expert Dr Pieter Groenemeijer warns that countries nearest the British Isles and Balkans are likely to suffer most as global warming amplifies such extreme weather.

“Extratropical cyclones are caused by a difference in temperature over a very large area,” says Groenemeijer, director of the European Severe Storms Laboratory.

“They typically occur in Northwestern Europe in autumn, winter and early spring.

“And especially in Central and in Southern Europe, there will be more severe thunderstorms that can produce hail, wind, tornadoes and very heavy rainfall as climate change worsens.”

Severe storms are the second-largest cause of insured loss in the world, and between 1980 and 2013 they were the most expensive natural hazard in Europe, according to German reinsurer Munich Re. Last year, torrential rain and flooding in Germany, France and Austria inflicted almost €5.4 billion worth of damage between May and June.

But there are ways in which governments can adapt to the intensifying weather to reduce costs.

“There are two key things policymakers must do,” says Nicolas Jeanmart, the head of personal insurance, general insurance & macro-economics at Insurance Europe.

“The first is to have effective building codes that are properly implemented to avoid development in high-risk areas. For example, requests to build on floodplains should be denied.

“The second is to build defences for properties that have already been built in vulnerable areas. Such efforts can take the form of climate-proofing existing buildings or providing incentives, such as through taxation, for climate-resilient development projects.

“However, while insurers can provide valuable expertise in terms of dealing with severe weather, it is authorities that need to fully implement the Paris climate agreement to limit the increase in global temperatures that is leading to increasingly severe weather.”

So the question remains: Can Europe completely prevent the arrival of powerful, behemoth storms on its shores or is there no hope left?

“We need to adapt as the weather changes,” says Ulbrich, “but to stop it from getting worse we need to make sure we stop increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

“We may not see a drastic change within the next 10 years, but we can influence it by acting now.”