To Test for Climate Disasters: Break, Burn and Throw Stuff

Originally published by the New York Times.
Author: Hiroko Tabuchi

WEST GLOCESTER, R.I. — In the backwoods of Rhode Island, a team of researchers spends whole days trying to destroy things: setting boxes on fire, shattering chunks of ice, hurling debris through the air at hurricane speed.

They work for an insurance company, FM Global, and the pandemonium simulates the hazards that are expected to strike with increasing frequency in this age of extreme weather.

“There’s a realization that hazards are changing, and we need to understand that,” said Louis Gritzo, the lab’s research manager, who has spent his career studying deadly risks. “This year will be a tipping point.”

Insurers have been vocal in warning of the dangers posed by climate change. Last year, total economic losses from natural disasters — many of them linked to climate change — reached $175 billion worldwide, the highest since 2012, according to the reinsurer Swiss Re.

This year’s tally is expected to be much larger. The hurricanes that tore through the southeastern United States alone caused as much as $245 billion in damage, the risk modeling firm RMS has estimated. Swiss Re said it expected 2017 to be one of the costliest years — if not the most costly — for natural disasters, and that was before raging fires hit Southern California, scorching more than 158,000 acres across four counties so far.

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The high stakes put insurance companies “on the front lines” of climate change, said Donald Hornstein, a professor of insurance and environmental law at the University of North Carolina. “For them, this isn’t politics. The reality of losses that take place from weather is real.”

So, Mr. Gritzo and his team spend their days putting all kinds of roofs, decks, walls and other structural defenses through extreme testing.

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