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Call for improved 'environmental intelligence'

Probably no-one worries more about the practical effects of climate change and natural disasters than insurance company executives and, in particular, those in the reinsurance industry – the companies that insure the insurers. These managers need to base their policies and premiums on cogent analyses of risk but the information that underlies their decisions is often difficult to obtain or non-existent. In short, they lack “environmental intelligence”.

Carl Hedde, a senior executive with Munich Reinsurance’s American branch, outlined the state of play at a forum on creating a national strategy for environmental intelligence held in Washington DC, US, last week. Among his duties, Hedde chairs a group of 35 geoscientists who seek to anticipate factors such as the extent of insured losses resulting from hurricanes in the US each year.

The problem is getting worse, Hedde said, reciting a litany of disasters that have befallen the US alone already this year: blizzards in the north-east, floods in the mid-west, fires in the west, strong tornadoes in both usual and unusual areas. Munich Re maintains an enormous database on catastrophic losses to help spot trends and anomalies, explained Hedde. Over the last 40 years, North America has accounted for over half of insured losses due to natural disasters worldwide, according to company data. Eight of the 11 worst global disasters since 1950 occurred in North America, with Hurricane Katrina at the top of the list.

Hedde must estimate his company’s risk accumulation; that is, does it have the resources to cover its clients’ losses in worst-case scenarios? “One of our frustrations,” he said, “is that we need data to be able to convince the insurance departments that this” – the continuing upward trend of natural disasters as the climate warms – “is a phenomenon that is actually happening.”

Other speakers also emphasized the need for more environmental data than current satellites and ground-based stations provide. One of the problems in formulating policy, observed Richard Engel, is that responsibility for monitoring environmental change is diffused through many US government agencies, and no-one has overall responsibility for coordinating their observations. Engel heads the environmental and natural resources programme for the director of National Intelligence. He noted wryly that US intelligence agencies collect environmental information everywhere in the world, except in the US.

The contribution of the Landsat satellites to Earth observation since 1972 cannot be over-estimated, according to several participants in the forum. The six satellites that achieved orbit, two of which are still functioning, have provided millions of images related to worldwide land use. “Food-security issues facing us as a species are really unprecedented,” said Gerald Nelson of the International Food Policy Research Institute. Climate change is a “threat multiplier” to other causes of concern in this area. Since Landsat data became freely available in 2008, their use has been “exploding”, he said.

Yet despite Landsat and other satellites, we still know far too little even about basic land cover, Nelson said. “We need observations that occur year after year after year in the same place,” he continued. And they need to be at relevant resolution. For example, in Java, Indonesia, “you will find fields that are the size of five metres by five metres”. Nelson urged that future Earth-observation satellites be inexpensive (“forget the gold plating”), and use off-the-shelf technology and simple but reliable launch vehicles. He suggested that a near-ideal system could be produced for €150 m, backed by ground-based GPS units, possibly within cell phones.

The forum was sponsored by the Alliance for Earth Observations, comprising US government agencies, academic institutions, industrial corporations and non-profit organizations.