Global flood losses hit $82 bln last year, as study highlights UK risk

Members of the fire service look at caravans that were swept awayat  Ballater caravan park after the river Dee burst it's banks in Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Members of the fire service look at caravans that were swept away at Ballater caravan park after the river Dee burst its banks in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Britain January 4, 2016. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

LONDON, March 30 (Reuters) - Flooding cost the global economy more than $82 billion last year, accounting for nearly a third of all losses from natural catastrophes, reinsurance agency Swiss Re Institute reported Wednesday.

In some parts of Europe, such losses could climb. A new study in the journal Nature found that stormy seas around Scotland and northern England have unleashed an increasing number of extreme storm surges in recent decades.

“Floods affect nearly a third of the world population, more than any other peril,” said Martin Bertogg, head of catastrophe perils at Swiss Re, in a statement. In 2021, there were more than 50 severe flood events across the world, often triggered by extreme rainfall and coastal storm surges. read more

Scientists long thought that more severe flooding along low-lying coastlines was driven only by the world’s rising sea levels, caused by climate change melting polar ice and warming ocean waters so they expand.

But scientists found that, in northern areas of the United Kingdom, stronger and more frequent storms over the North Atlantic since 1960 led to more extreme storm surges, according to the Nature study released Wednesday. The increased storm activity was as much to blame for the increase in extreme storm flooding as was sea level rise.

Around mainland Europe, however, calmer weather canceled out the storm surge impacts of sea level rise between 1960 and 2018.

"Most countries assume that the likelihood of surge extremes will remain the same and only account for sea level rise," said lead author Francisco Calafat at the National Oceanography Centre in the United Kingdom. This may cause governments to underestimate future flooding, he said.

If European countries do not adapt to increasing flood risks, they could face up to nearly 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) in yearly damages by 2100, according to a 2018 study in the journal Nature Climate Change. The United Kingdom would be hardest hit, experiencing about a fifth of those damages.

Understanding storm dynamics "is essential for coastal planning and protecting near shore societies," said oceanographer Michalis Vousdoukas with the European Commission.

Reporting by Gloria Dickie; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker

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Gloria Dickie reports on climate and environmental issues for Reuters. She is based in London. Her interests include biodiversity loss, Arctic science, the cryosphere, international climate diplomacy, climate change and public health, and human-wildlife conflict. She previously worked as a freelance environmental journalist for 7 years, writing for publications such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Scientific American, and Wired magazine. Dickie was a 2022 finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists in the international reporting category for her climate reporting from Svalbard. She is also the author of Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future (W.W. Norton, 2023).