The threat of tornadoes is rising as the weather conditions that create them are becoming more frequent and widespread due to global warming, experts say. This means that many areas that rarely see these storms are now in their path.
The United States experienced six times more billion-dollar storms in the past decade than in the previous two decades Central climate. These are the storms that produce tornadoes. This year, tornadoes have claimed at least 58 lives in 10 states, already surpassing the annual average. Much of this is because the season is starting earlier and the tornado alley is widening due to the warmer climate.
“Northeast Texas, eastern Oklahoma, the Arkansas River Valley, the Mid-South, those areas are expected to see almost a doubling of tornado-producing storms,” said Walker Scott Ashley, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University.
Tornadoes need four ingredients to form, Ashley explained: moisture, instability (which provides the energy needed for storms), wind shear and lift. The first two are expected to increase significantly in a warming climate.
“It makes a lot of sense. If we warm the oceans, if we warm the Earth’s atmospheric system, we’re going to have more moisture in that system, and that leads to more moisture for storms, but also more instability.” Ashley said.
When a powerful F-4 tornado tore through Rolling Fork, Mississippi in March, residents were largely unprepared. The area hasn’t seen a tornado in over half a century.
“We haven’t had too many tornadoes. All I remember is 1971 and a tornado went around Rolling Fork. It didn’t really hit,” said Eldridge Walker, mayor and native of Rolling Fork, which has a population of just under 1,800.
The city had only one tornado siren when the March storm hit, and some residents said they didn’t hear it. There are now plans to add two more.
“It’s pretty clear that things are happening, which means as a city, as a community, as a homeowner, that people need to be serious, a little more serious about being prepared,” Walker said.
The difference between tornadoes passing through a typical tornado alley like Kansas and those passing through Mississippi is simply density. The states have almost exactly the same populations, but Mississippi is about half the size of Kansas.
“There are more things, more people, more of us and more of our possessions in the Mid-South,” Ashely said. “You combine that with extreme socio-economic vulnerability, and that’s increased levels of poverty and lack of shelter and poor, in many cases, substandard housing – it’s a recipe for disaster in some of these areas.”
Most Rolling Fork residents did not have homeowners or renters insurance, according to Walker.
This is exactly why tornado alley widening is quickly becoming a new focus for insurers.
“If we continue on the trend we’re going, that means these economic losses per calendar quarter will grow into the hundreds of billions of dollars,” said John Dickson, president of Aon Edge Insurance, a division of the company. And he. “We have to make sure we have the infrastructure, we have the capital mechanism, we have the connected community mechanism to be able to respond to these events.”
But all of this is happening, Dickson said, at a time when insurance dollars are dwindling.
“So insurance capital becomes a scarce final commodity, prices rise, coverage changes, coverage options become tighter and deductibles rise,” he added.
Global reinsurer capital fell 17%, or $115 billion, to $560 billion in the first nine months of 2022, according to Eric Andersen, president of Aon, in March 2023 testimony before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. As a result, reinsurers are raising prices, reducing coverage and even exiting some markets to improve returns.
Both State Farm and Allstate have has stopped writing home owners insurance in California due to the increasing risk of forest fires. In a May release, State Farm said it made the decision “due to historic increases in construction costs exceeding inflation, rapidly increasing catastrophe exposure and a challenging reinsurance market.”