CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate

Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

Eric Tate, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.

Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.

Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.

Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***


Natural disasters cost $175 billion in 2016, highest since 2012

St. Antoine hospital in Jérémie, Haiti was among the structures damaged when Hurricane Matthew ravaged the country earlier this year. (CDC Global/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 6, 2017

Shortly after the New Year, German insurance giant Munich Re announced that natural disaster damages were higher in 2016 than they have been since 2012.

Insurance losses totaled $175 billion over the last twelve months, which is two-thirds more than in 2015. The company counted 750 natural disasters internationally, which includes “earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and heatwaves.” The 6.9 magnitude Earthquake that shook southern Japan was the world’s most costly natural disaster this year, claiming $31 billion in damages.

North America was plagued with the most natural disasters it has seen since the 1980’s, it experienced a total of “160 loss events in 2016.” Spring heat waves in Canada led to wildfires in Alberta, costing the region $4 billion, while August floods in the southern United States racked up $10 billion in losses.

Flood events made up 34 percent of this year’s total losses. Comparatively, these events accounted for 21 percent of total losses over the last ten years. Flash floods in Germany and France cost the region almost $6 billion this year. Peter Hoppe, head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research Unit, said these increases are related to “unchecked climate change.”

Hoppe said, “Of course, individual events themselves can never be attributed directly to climate change. But there are now many indications that certain events — such as persistent weather systems or storms bringing torrential rains – are more likely to occur in certain regions as a result of climate change.”

Indeed, a recently published report from the World Meteorological Organization outlines the relationship between human-induced climate change and the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters. Among other examples, the authors point out that the 2013 Australian heat wave was made five times more likely because of human-induced warming.

The report said, “Extreme events are always a result of natural variability and human-induced climate change, which cannot be entirely disentangled.”

COP 21 event focuses on insurance for climate-related natural disasters

A panel with representatives from France, Germany, and Spain were part of a panel that discussed the role of insurance companies when covering natural disasters. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Representatives from France, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland were part of a panel that discussed the role of insurance companies when covering natural disasters. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | December 9, 2015

PARIS – Representatives from various European nations got together as part of a COP 21 conference on Wednesday to discuss the role of the insurance industry when dealing with the natural disasters, many of which are worsened by the effects of climate change.

Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (CCR) sponsored the conference entitled “The challenges of natural disasters insurance against the future climate.” Margareta Wahlström – who serves as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – kicked off the event by discussing the relationship between natural disasters and climate change to roughly 200 people in the Green Zone’s Nelson Mandela Auditorium.

“The face of climate change unfortunately is the increasing frequency, the increasing cost – be it social economic and political –  of the disruptive phenomenon we call [natural] disasters,” she said. “I think the questions we want to debate today are about how and where can the insurance agency do more to be part of the solution.”

She emphasized the need to understand the social impacts of natural disasters which can have devastating effects on communities.

“What is the impact on education? Employment? Poverty?” she asked, adding “Almost every disaster in world increases poverty in rich countries and in poor countries.”

Following Wahlström’s presentation, the auditorium was shown the premier of “Get Ready: Adapting to cope with natural disasters,” a 30-minute documentary that highlighted several recent natural disasters around the world and the role that insurance and mitigation efforts can play in the aftermath of such events.

One such event was the serve flooding that hit Thailand in 2011, resulting in more than 800 deaths and $32 billion in damage. The ripple effects of the floods were seen worldwide as prices rose for hard drives and automobiles produced in the southeast Asian country.

The documentary also addressed efforts taken by communities to mitigate the effects of flooding and other natural disasters. The southern French town of Sommières was one place where new ideas have been implemented to mitigate the effects of flooding. Sommières now has it so that only businesses can occupy the ground level of buildings throughout the four square mile town. Additionally, the town installed mobile electric boxes and parking meters which can be easily removed in the event of another flood. In 2012, the United Nations recognized Sommières as a model city for its efforts to mitigate flood damage.

Another example of mitigation efforts came from a Duth engineer who designed a way to put homes, roads, and other structures on floats that rise and lower with the level of the water. Similar efforts have been tried in England and France has considered adopting such measures.

The conference concluded with a panel of insurance experts discussing various ways that insurance companies can adapt their services to better serve the needs of those affected by natural disasters. Much of the discussion focused on increased cooperation between private insurance companies and governmental agencies. (Editorial Note: I’ve chosen not to quote any of the panelists as many of them spoke in French and I was only able to understand them through an English translator.)

The issue of natural disaster insurance is relevant to Iowans as major floods in 1993 and 2009 caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses, and other property across the state. Additionally, Iowa’s capital Des Moines has been called “a global hub of the insurance industry, trailing only Hartford, Connecticut and megacities like New York.”