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The 2013–2014 winter windstorm season in Europe will be remembered for being particularly active, bringing persistent unsettled weather to the region, and with it some exceptional meteorological features. The insurance industry will have much to learn from this winter.

Past extreme windstorms, such as Daria, Herta, Vivian, and Wiebke in 1990, each caused significant losses in Europe. In contrast, the individual storms of 2013–2014 caused relatively low levels of loss. While not extreme on a single-event basis, the accumulated activity and loss across the season was notable, primarily due to the specific characteristics of the jet stream.

A stronger-than-usual jet stream off the U.S. Eastern Seaboard was caused by very cold polar air over Canada and warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the sub-tropical West Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. Subsequently, this jet stream significantly weakened over the East Atlantic.

Therefore, the majority of systems were mature and wet when they reached Europe. These storms, while associated with steep pressure gradients, brought only moderate peak gust wind speeds onshore, mainly to the U.K. and Ireland. In contrast, the storms that hit Europe in 1990 were mostly still in their development phase under a strong jet stream as they passed over the continent.

Windstorm

The 2013––2014 storms were also very wet, and many parts of the U.K. experienced record-breaking rainfall resulting in significant inland flooding. Again, individual storms were not uniquely severe, but the impact was cumulative, especially as the soil progressively saturated.

Not all events this winter season weakened before impact. Windstorms Christian and Xaver were exceptions, only becoming mature storms after crossing the British Isles into the North Sea and were more damaging.

Christian impacted Germany, Denmark, and Sweden with strong winds. RMS engineers visited the region and observed that the majority of building damage was dominated by the usual tile uplift along the edges of the buildings. Fallen trees were observed, but in most cases, there was sufficient clearance to prevent them from causing building damage.

Windstorm

Xaver brought a significant storm surge to northern Europe, although coastal defenses mostly withstood the storm. Xaver, as well as some of this year’s other events, demonstrated the importance of understanding tides when assessing surge hazard as many events coincided with some of the highest tides of the year. The size of a storm-induced surge is much smaller than the local tidal range; consequently, if these events had occurred a few days earlier or later, the astronomical tide would have been reduced, significantly reducing the high water level.

Windstorm

Wind, flood, and coastal surge are three components of this variable peril that can make the difference between unsettled and extreme weather. This highlights the importance of modeling the complete life cycle of windstorms, the background climate, and antecedent conditions to fully understand the potential hazard.

This season has also raised questions about the variability of windstorm activity in Europe, how much we understand this variability, and what we can do to better understand it in the future. While this winter season was active, we have been in a lull of storm activity for about 20 years.

Given the uncertainty that surrounds our ability to predict the future of this damaging peril, perhaps for now we are best positioned to learn lessons from the past. This past winter provided a unique opportunity, compared to the more extreme events that have dominated the recent historical record.

RMS has prepared a detailed report on the 2013–2014 Europe windstorm season, which analyzes the events that occurred and their insurance and modeling considerations. To access the full report, visit RMS publications.

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Are (Re)insurers Really Able To Plan For That Rainy Day?

Many (re)insurers may be taken aback by the level of claims arising from floods in the French Riviera on October 3, 2015. The reason? A large proportion of the affected homes and businesses they insure in the area are nowhere near a river or floodplain, so many models failed to identify the possibility of their inundation by rainfall and flash floods. Effective flood modeling must begin with precipitation (rain/snowfall), since river-gauge-based modeling of inland flood risk lacks the ability to cope with extreme peaks of precipitation intensity. Further, a credible flood model must incorporate risk factors as well as the hazard: the nature of the ground, such as its saturation level due to antecedent conditions, and the extent of flood defenses. Failing to provide such critical factor can cause risk to be dramatically miscalculated. A not so sunny Côte d’Azur This was clearly apparent to the RMS event reconnaissance team who visited the affected areas of southern France immediately after the floods. “High-water marks for fluvial flooding from the rivers Brague and Riou de l’Argentiere were at levels over two meters, but flash floodwaters reached heights in excess of one meter in areas well away from the rivers and their floodplains,” reported the team. This caused significant damage to many more ground-floor properties than would have been expected, including structural damage to foundations and scouring caused by fast-floating debris. Damage to vehicles parked in underground carparks was extensive, as many filled with rainwater. Vehicles struck by more than 0.5 meters of water were written off, all as a result of an event that was not modeled by many insurers. The Nice floods show clearly how European flood modeling must be taken to a new level. It is essential that modelers capture the entire temporal precipitation process that leads to floods. Antecedent conditions—primarily the capacity of the soil to absorb water must be considered, since a little additional rainfall may trigger saturation, causing “saturation excess overland flow” (or runoff). This in turn can lead to losses such as those assessed by our event reconnaissance team in Nice. Our modeling team believes that to achieve this new level of understanding, models must be based on continuous hydrological simulations, with a fine time-step discretization; the models must simulate the intensity of rainfall over time and place, at a high level of granularity. We’ve been able to see that models that are not based on continuous precipitation modeling could miss up to 50% of losses that would occur off flood plains, leading to serious underestimation of technical pricing for primary and reinsurance contracts. What’s in a model? When building a flood model, starting from precipitation is fundamental to the reproduction, and therefore the modeling, of realistic spatial correlation patterns between river basins, cities, and other areas of concentrated risks, which are driven by positive relationships between precipitation fields. Such modeling of rainfall may also identify the potential for damage from fluvial events. But credible defenses must also be included in the model. The small, poorly defended river Brague burst its banks due to rainfall, demolishing small structures in the town of Biot. Only a rainfall-based model that considers established defenses can capture this type of damage. Simulated precipitation forms the foundation of RMS inland flood models, which enables representation of both fluvial and pluvial flood risk. Since flood losses are often driven by events outside major river flood plains, such an approach, coupled with an advanced defense model, is the only way to garner a satisfactory view of risk. Visits by our event reconnaissance teams further allow RMS to integrate the latest flood data into models, for example as point validation for hazard and vulnerability. Sluggish growth in European insurance markets presents a challenge for many (re)insurers. Broad underwriting of flood risk presents an opportunity, but demands appropriate modeling solutions. RMS flood products provide just that, by ensuring that the potential for significant loss is well understood, and managed appropriately.…

Laurent Marescot
Laurent Marescot
Senior Director, Model Product Strategy, RMS

Based in Zurich, Laurent initially joined RMS in 2008 as part of the Zurich account management team, servicing the European (re)insurance and ILS market. He then moved to the model product management group, leading the technical product management team for European climatic perils, such as windstorm, severe convective storm and flood. Since 2014, he has joined the model product strategy group for Europe model product line.

Prior to RMS, Laurent worked 3 years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) as a Research Associate and Lecturer, managing multidisciplinary natural hazard research projects. Laurent still lectures regularly on geophysics and catastrophe modeling at universities, and gives seminars and invited talks in international meetings. He is a Lecturer and Scientific Collaborator at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). Laurent co-authored numerous industry publications, reviewed scientific articles and proceeding papers. He holds an MSc in Geology from the University of Lausanne and a PhD in Geophysics from the University of Lausanne and the University of Nantes.

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