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Unsettled weather in the Pacific might have a calming effect on Atlantic hurricane exposures this year.
That weather pattern-known as El Nino-is a particularly strong warming over parts of the eastern Pacific off the coast of Peru and along the equator. El Nino typically causes strong upper tropospheric winds to blow into the tropical Atlantic. Those winds often cut off developing hurricanes.
In fact, the unusually strong 1997 El Nino has led William Gray, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., to re-vise his much-watched hurricane forecast. Earlier this month, Mr. Gray predicted that there would be six Atlantic hurricanes-two of them "intense" hurricanes packing winds of at least 111 mph-this year. He had previously predicted seven hurricanes, three of which would be intense, for 1997 (BI, June 16).
Two relatively weak hurricanes already had formed before Mr. Gray's Aug. 6 revised prediction.
Mr. Gray noted, however, that the strength of El Nino could move hurricanes and tropical storms further north than usual, forming off Florida, the Bahamas and the northern Gulf of Mexico rather than in the tropics, thus presenting a greater threat to the United States. He also noted that even with El Nino, his newer prediction still calls for a slightly higher than average amount of hurricane activity this year.
Mike Davey, a scientist with the climate research division of the U.K. Meteorological Office at the Hadley Centre, England, said El Nino is "certainly going to have an impact on rain and windfall patterns." Scientists this year are seeing a more rapid and earlier warming of the tropical Pacific waters than for many years, he said.
Although El Nino happens every few years, the changes already witnessed this year are greater than the previous strong El Nino in 1982-83, he noted. That El Nino caused a major climate change, with droughts in Indonesia and Australia and flooding in Ecuador, Peru and California, Mr. Davey noted.
This year's El Nino has already been associated with localized flooding in central Chile and central Argentina, Uruguay and southern Bra-zil, according to the Washington-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"El Nino is a short-term weather impact," and it is difficult to extrapolate the event to make accurate loss predictions, said Matthias Weber, deputy head of the catastrophe perils research department of Swiss Reinsurance Co. in Zurich.
West Coast risk managers need to be aware of El Nino but also realize that the condition itself is not the peril, said Peter J. Gore Willse, a research consultant with Industrial Risk Insurers in Hartford, Conn. Instead, it can magnify existing perils, he said.
For example, El Nino can mean heavier-than-normal rains and snowfalls in the West, he said. It can also aggravate Santa Ana winds that bring in hot air and promote forest and brush fires in California, he said.
"Whether the El Nino is there or not, the risk manager needs to be prepared for all those events," said Mark A. Tschiegg, IRI's vp-loss prevention services.
"It doesn't matter which disaster you're planning for; the main thing is that risk managers should understand what their exposure is," said Stephen W. Lilienthal, executive vp/chief underwriting officer for United States Fidelity & Guaranty Corp. in Baltimore.
"Don't deny, don't underestimate and have a formal plan," he said. Mr. Lilienthal said the success of the planning depends on having "buy-ins" throughout the organization, all the way to the chief executive officer. If companies don't have buy-ins to disaster planning through the organization, they're doomed, he said.