Storm warning

NIWA Chief Executive John Morgan outlines the case for investment in hazard forecasting and resilience.

The bill for extreme weather events in Aotearoa New Zealand is climbing at an alarming rate.

In 1993, insurance claims due to storms, wind and floods across New Zealand totalled $12 million, in today’s dollar terms.

Last year, flooding in the Nelson-Tasman district, along with a string of storms lashing both Westland and the North Island‘s East Coast, pushed insurance industry payouts to a new annual all-time high of $351 million.

That record lasted less than three months.

The Insurance Council confirmed in April that, in the wake of the Auckland Anniversary Weekend floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, insurers already face well over $2 billion in claims for 2023.

It is sobering to think that this figure only covers damage to private homes and businesses. It doesn’t include the costs that Waka Kotahi and local councils face to repair damaged roads and bridges across the North Island. Nor does it cover the wider economic disruption caused by these two extreme events. Treasury’s latest estimate puts the bill for Gabrielle and the Anniversary Weekend floods at up to $14.5 billion.

Climate researchers have consistently warned that our warming climate means extreme weather events will become more severe.

Science can’t hold back the wind or rain, but it does play an increasingly important role in helping us understand the impact of these events, and in planning for their return.

NIWA’s supercomputers and increasingly sophisticated weather models mean forecasters can now more accurately predict how much rain will fall, where and when.

And we are continuing to refine our catchment level tools, so, once that rain hits the ground, our river flow experts can pinpoint where that water will go, at what volumes and how fast it will be travelling.

Hazard specialists can then use RiskScape – a multi-risk analysis tool designed by NIWA and GNS Science – to assess what those floodwaters will mean for the people and property in their path.

The Government recently committed $10.8 million to support the science of extreme weather response and recovery. It will be money well spent. Gabrielle is a timely reminder of the value of investing in such hazard-related research.

Regional planners and civil defence teams rely on the data collected and forecasts generated, and communities rely on the modelling that follows. Better informed means better prepared.

At a national level we know that more storms are headed our way, and that they are likely to be more severe.

We also know that investing in the science that informs hazard planning and recovery will help soften the next blow.