An Actuary Looks at Climate Change

A personal reflection on how more frequent extreme weather events affect our planet Rebecca Owen


On a recent cold, raw afternoon, I walked the banks of the Yachats River with an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife representative to look at the devastation wrought by a spate of unusually ferocious winter storms. Wild winds and an atmospheric river had met with high surf and the annual king tides to push the waters to historic high levels, but the damage was made worse by the inordinate amount of downed trees that gouged and scarred the river’s banks. This loss of timber was a result of a spate of severe windstorms in the fall that tore through the coastal range, leaving behind a swathe of downed trees, unstable hillsides, power outages and property damage. The trees were more vulnerable than usual because of an unusually hot and dry late summer, which culminated in an unexpected, searing, scouring eastern wind that brought with it thick smoke and ash from the infernos in the Cascade Mountains, tearing down trees, sparking local fires and leaving choking residents clutching go bags.

Figures 1 and 2 give a visual and numerical idea of the conditions in September 2020.

Figure 1: Satellite Image of the Unusual Eastern Wind That Smothered the Northwest United States in Smoke, September 2020

Source: Satellite image courtesy of NASA

Figure 2: Fine Particulate Measures (PM2.5) on the U.S. West Coast, September 2020

Note: Yachats, Oregon, had a maximum of 750 at one point—above 300 is considered hazardous to health.

Source: Image courtesy of Purple Air Real Time Air Quality Map

This part of the West Coast, where residents delight in the vagaries of weather, is now distraught as they contemplate the direction climate change is taking us. Even the chorus of people describing the 1962 Columbus Day Storm that usually accompanies any grumbling about the weather was muffled as each month in 2020 brought more destruction.

We had it easy.

All around us, there are stories of severe weather and comments about the frequency—or rarity—of a given event. Australia marked its driest and hottest year on record at the end of the summer season in 2020. The California wildfire season was the worst on record, in part a result of unusually hot, dry conditions. There were mudslides in Italy, tropical storms in the Philippines, heavy snow in Madrid and hurricanes that battered the Caribbean. There was the bending of the arctic vortex to bring cold and snow to the Northeast and Texas while at the same time record-warm temperatures were recorded in the Arctic and Antarctic, which left open patches of sea. Daylight flooding in Miami has become a regular occurrence, not to mention the flooded fields and lost crops of the Grain Belt, and active tornado seasons and dust storms startled the Midwest.

In this litany of weather news, we know lives have been lost and buildings and infrastructure destroyed. We are watching the footage and reading the headlines, and perhaps we have even experienced these stories personally and professionally.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2021 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.